Camila Vallejo: Chile's Hard-Left Heartthrob

Vallejo, 23, has fought for student debt to be eased as well as for the utopian goal of “free education for all.” Marcelo Hernandez / DPA-Landov

It is 7 p.m. in Brasília, and the streets of Brazil's capital are jammed with homebound commuters, but in a basement auditorium of the darkening congressional building, a student rally has hit fever pitch. "Ca-mi-la, Ca-mi-la, Ca-mi-la!" they chant. All day they'd strained for a glimpse of Camila Vallejo, the Chilean undergrad who turned a campus quarrel over high-priced education into a national political revolt that has roiled the Andean nation and electrified Latin youth from Mexico City to Puerto Montt.

Now Vallejo was taking her Chilean Spring on the road, and Brazilians were not about to miss out. Thousands of them had marched with her under a withering sun to the doors of Congress. They had trailed her inside where she spoke before the human-rights commission, posed for photo ops with heat-seeking lawmakers, and dashed off autographs, leaving a vapor trail of reporters, photographers, and TV cameras wherever she turned. And now that the dark-haired woman, wearing loose-cut jeans, a diaphanous blouse, and a billboard smile has taken the stage, her followers are in a lather. "Save your wolf whistles for later," Vallejo jokes.

It's a welcome she's gotten used to. Camila Amaranta Vallejo Dowling is not your cookie-cutter revolutionary. With soft green eyes, a silver nose ring, and 63,000 fans on Facebook, the Santiago-born student leader would be a better fit on the catwalks than at the barricades. A year ago, she was just another denim-clad undergrad at the University of Chile in Santiago. But at 23, this geography major has become the most visible face of a political movement that has shaken South America's most orderly nation, helped shove the respected billionaire president Sebastián Piñera's approval ratings (now 22 percent) off a cliff, and set tennis shoes marching throughout the hemisphere.

Student siren, beauty and the beast, flower of the Chilean Spring—there's no lack of metaphors to describe this arrestingly attractive Communist Party youth cadre, whose call for affordable education in Chile has struck a chord across the continent. The student movement is bigger than Vallejo, but she is the polestar of the five-month revolt that has sent millions to the streets in Chile's biggest political upheaval since the military coup in 1973. The protests have halted Santiago, toppled the chief of police, and ousted a top bureaucrat at the Culture Ministry, whose menacing Twitter post—"Kill the bitch and eliminate the litter"—was straight from the playbook of the late dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet. The uprising has rattled Piñera, forcing him to tear up one bold education reform after another. Vallejo's rebel agenda may be a shopping list of grievances, from the eminently reasonable call to ease student-debt burdens to the utopian demand for "free education for all." But she has gotten a tone-deaf political establishment's attention. "This movement may not reach all its goals on education, but Chilean politics will never be the same," says Chilean pollster Marta Lagos of Latinobarómetro.

At a glance, Chile would seem the wrong place to start a revolution. Orderly and democratic, with a humming economy and little corruption, this sliver of a country has long been the benchmark for Latin America, combining prosperity with sound accounting and aggressive antipoverty measures. Though inequality persists, only 15 percent of Chileans are poor today, while 40 percent were in 1990. And Chileans consistently trump their Latin peers in standardized tests for science, math, and reading.

At least part of Chile's good grades owe to an economic model that Vallejo and her compa–eros reject. In the 1970s, Chile had a few government-owned universities and many private schools bankrolled by taxpayers. Diplomas were for the elite. Market-friendly economists under Pinochet took over, slashing university subsidies, decentralizing publicly funded elementary and high schools, and encouraging the creation of for-profit colleges. University enrollment surged from 180,000 in 1984 to 1 million today. But so did student debts. Many overindebted students quit school, fueling Chile's dismal 52 percent college-dropout rate, while others take a decade or more to pay back their loans.

Piñera inherited this lopsided system, but his failure to fix it, and his reputation as a right-winger, made him an easy target for a broad range of Chilean discontents, from struggling middle-class families to political outliers. Chile's hard left, which has repeatedly flunked at the polls, has found redemption in the student movement.

After badly underestimating the students, Chile's president is scrambling to accommodate them, offering to pump up scholarships and slash interest rates on college loans. Are these enough? "These measures are all good, but they aren't structural changes," Vallejo says, taking a drag from a cigarette, a rare indulgence in the bruising rebel's regimen. "They say this is an antigovernment movement. We want to change the model of development." For the last two decades, Chileans have voted otherwise. The ultimate test for Vallejo's Chilean Spring will be not on the street but at the ballot box.