Late last month the British newspaper The Guardian asked readers to vote for its person of the year. The candidates included household names like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Egyptian techno-revolutionary Wael Ghonim and the Burmese pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. All placed far behind a striking, nose-ringed student from Chile named Camila Vallejo.
Though far from a familiar face in the United States, the 23-year-old Ms. Vallejo has gained rock-star status among the global activist class. Since June she has led regular street marches of up to 200,000 people through Santiago’s broad avenues — the largest demonstrations since the waning days of the Pinochet regime in the late 1980s. Under her leadership, the mobilization, known as the Chilean Winter, has gained nationwide support; one of its slogans, “We are the 90 percent,” referred to its approval rating in late September.
Ms. Vallejo’s charismatic leadership has led commentators to make the obligatory comparisons to other Latin American leftist icons like Subcomandante Marcos and Che Guevara. Yet “Commander Camila,” as her followers call her, has become a personality in her own regard. She skewers senators in prime-time TV debates and stays on message with daytime talk-show hosts hungry for lurid details about her personal life, while her eloquence gives her a preternatural ability to connect with an audience far beyond her left-wing base.
In perhaps the most poignant set piece in the year of the protester, Ms. Vallejo addressed a dense ring of photographers and reporters in August while kneeling within a peace sign made of spent tear-gas shells, where she calmly mused about how many educational improvements could have been bought with the $100,000 worth of munitions at her feet.
Ms. Vallejo, like many of her fellow student leaders, is an avowed communist. But while she has publicly commended other regional leftists like Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador, she and her generation have little in common with the older left of Fidel Castro or Hugo Chávez. They are less ideological purists than change-seeking pragmatists, even if that means working within the existing political order.
Still, there’s no question that the movement is upending Chilean society. True, it is centered on a policy question, namely reforming an educational system that disproportionally favors the children of wealthy families. But the earth-shaking Paris protests in 1968 also began with calls for university reform — before spiraling into street battles between radicalized students and truncheon-wielding gendarmes, opposing symbols in the culture war between old and new France.
The same process is under way in Chile. As the protests increasingly devolve into rock and tear-gas exchanges between students and the police, it’s becoming clear that more than education policy is at stake: a nonviolent social revolution in which disaffected, politically savvy youth are trying to overthrow the mores of an older generation, one they feel is still tainted by the legacy of Pinochet. It is not just about policy reform, but also about changing the underlying timbers of Chilean society.