- Interview by
- Octavio García Soto
When Camila Vallejo announced in 2012 that she intended to run for the Chilean Congress, many on the Left accused her of being a “sellout.” The previous year she had become one of the most visible faces of student protests demanding free and quality education, as spokeswoman for the Confederation of Chilean Students (CONFECH). Indeed, there was so much international media attention around her that in October 2011, Guardian readers chose her as person of the year.
But for many in Chile, her bid for Congress was a betrayal of the protests’ antiestablishment sentiment. Twenty years after the return to democracy, the neoliberal misery imposed by Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship persisted — and many saw parliamentary politics as the place where promises went to die, including ones from figures on the Left.
Today, Camila Vallejo is nearing the end of her second term as a congresswoman, and this August she announced that she will not seek a third. The reactions to this news were quite different from the response to her first candidacy nine years ago, as a wave of support on social media lamented the Communist legislator’s departure from Congress. But it’s also true that Vallejo’s legislative work has been an uphill struggle — not only because of the Right’s staunch defense of the neoliberal system, but also because of a stubborn center-left stranded in failed Third Way politics.
Vallejo and fellow Communist Party legislators certainly have used their platform to push for major changes in Chile. They’ve fought to cut the maximum working week from forty-five to forty hours, and called for pandemic relief measures such as a tax on the superrich and a universal basic income. When a convention was called to rewrite the country’s Pinochet-era constitution following the massive popular protests of fall 2019, Vallejo was among those who resisted the creation of a two-thirds quorum for its decisions — a formidable barrier to change, imposed by the old parties.
Indeed, while these moves all enjoyed majority popular support, they encountered major opposition in Congress. Most of them didn’t prosper, or at least haven’t done so yet. But others found a way. Recently, the Constitutional Convention agreed that decisions failing to meet the two-thirds quorum but enjoying at least 60 percent support would be resolved through referenda. In addition, the abortion decriminalization bill promoted by Vallejo and other congresswomen was recently approved in Congress is now set to be debated in the Senate.
Currently, Vallejo leads the Communist wing of the left-wing coalition behind Congressman Gabriel Boric’s presidential run. The campaign has an element of a college reunion: her counterpart in the campaign’s moderate wing, Giorgio Jackson, was president of the Student Federation of the Catholic University of Chile (FEUC) the same year as her, and Boric was her successor as University of Chile Student Federation (FECH) president. But it is also marked by differences within the Left about the nature of change that is now possible, with the constitutional process and presidential election setting Chile at a turning point.
Vallejo spoke to Jacobin’s Octavio García Soto about her decision not to seek reelection, her combination of Marxism and feminism, and her hopes in the very youngest Chileans.
Congresswoman, you’ve said before that it’s necessary to have one foot in government and one foot in the streets. What does it mean to be in the streets?
It means that our organization — be it the Communist Party or a broader alliance with other political and social forces — needs to have a presence in social organizations, in all the different parts of society that are today living with the consequences of a discriminatory, oppressive, and unjust model.
When we speak of keeping one foot in congress, or in the government, and one foot in the streets, what we are saying is that our collective needs comrades who are present in people’s reality and that our work, as well as my work from Congress, cannot be cloistered within four walls 24/7. Our collective needs a real focus on communicating with social organizations, on working together, on constantly listening to our people’s concerns and opinions, and being able to channel those concerns through legislation.
It is obvious, when you lose that foot on the streets, when you stop listening and working with organizations, you become a mere reproducer of neoliberal politics and of a state that represents the interests of a minority class rather than those of the great majorities.
Why aren’t you running for reelection?
It is not a purely personal issue. We’re a political force with great social fighters in different trenches. I believe in the importance of opening up spaces in Congress for more comrades. It’s also important for me to continue learning and developing myself in other spaces of political education and commitment, so I just didn’t see myself in the National Congress for four more years. There are undoubtedly many possibilities for change, when there is a good correlation of forces, but it’s not the only space to fight for that.
We are a living force, and the party isn’t only its best-known figures. There are many other comrades who should also be there and learn what the struggle in that space means, because you see great class contradictions there. Running in my place will be another comrade from the Communist Youth (Daniela Serrano), who has a particular history of struggle, who is also from the student world.
Unlike other student leaders such as Gabriel Boric and Giorgio Jackson, who rejected traditional parties from the beginning, you have always been a member of the Communist Party. What is your history with the party?
I became a member in 2007, before the student movement of 2011. For me, the Communist Youth was a school. There, I forged my main convictions. It was with the convictions given to me by my political militancy that I entered the student movement and tried to represent it, largely as a spokesperson. I was not going to abandon those convictions just in order to enter Congress.
Did your family have a history with the party?
My most direct family was communist, but they formed me more in values of solidarity rather than political militancy as such. I decided to join because of the experience I had at the University of Chile. I looked actively for a space, because I was certain I didn’t want to enter college only to study, I wanted to contribute to change, in terms of democracy, justice, and greater equality. The Communist Youth was the organization that I found most serious and responsible, the product of its history and proposals.
Being a leftist implies accepting hard truths: Economic inequality, climate change, patriarchy. . . As someone who is going to be a father in a few months, I ask you: How do you manage to answer your seven-year-old daughter’s tough questions?
It’s amazing how awake today’s children are. Their intelligence is moving and surprising. My daughter knows what I do. I don’t know if she idealizes it, I’ll be able to talk with her about it later, about how she saw me when she was a child. But for the moment, she understands that there are things that need to be changed, that there are people who suffer from hunger. Children nowadays are very careful with animals, even with insects, they question adults a lot about protecting the environment.
So, what I do is just talk to her. Not from an adult-centric point of view, but as equals, just using simple words to explain to her why we have problems in our environment, why there is a depletion of our natural resources and our water. I talk about people: there are people who heavily exploit natural resources, for example forests, and then sell the wood and the money they get from that sale ends up in the hands of a few, and not of all those who have worked in said exploitation.
I explain to her that we have a way of organizing society that unfortunately benefits the few who cut down trees, extract copper and minerals from our country — and that not only most people but also the environment is affected. And she understands perfectly, and asks more and more questions.
You have said that you are more in tune with the Frente Amplio [the “Broad Front” coalition formed by progressive parties] than with the Concertación [center-left coalition of traditional political parties]. What is the difference in working methods?
Obviously we have more codes in common with the Frente Amplio. Our generation was forged in the social struggle of the last years — well, of the last decade [laughs].
But the most important thing is the project. The Frente Amplio is a fairly new coalition, but it has managed to consolidate an increasingly clear project to overcome neoliberalism. We have great programmatic coincidences and also a real will to push toward those transformations.
I believe that what happened with the Concertación was that many of its representatives had been in institutional politics for more than twenty, thirty, forty years and their actions demonstrated that their interests were closer to the current model than to overcoming it. This does not happen with the Frente Amplio. We may have some theoretical or circumstantial differences, sometimes, but in the end we are united by the need to push for a medium and long-term transformation project.
First of all, words build reality and what happened on October 18 has, in my opinion, wrongly been called a “social explosion.”
It wasn’t a mere outburst — it was a social and popular revolt, which tried to stir up and break with the status quo with a deep questioning of traditional politics, with a strong questioning of a model based on abuses. Moreover, it was not an “explosion” because it was the result of a long process of accumulation of organization and struggle. It wasn’t born out of nothing — there were many mobilizations and many small revolts before. I am not only talking about 2011, where we were already clearly proposing to crack the bases of the neoliberal model, questioning profit in education, proposing a tax reform . . . we were even talking about the need for a new constitution since 2006, 2005, 2001.
The second thing is that this discontent was channeled institutionally through a political agreement, which resulted in a referendum to define whether a new constitution was to be created or not, and then the creation of this Constitutional Convention. I believe that for it to be a revolution we have to see how the proposal for a new constitution ends.
I cannot speak of a revolutionary process if there is not a real and concrete change in the character of the Chilean state. If we continue with something similar to a subsidiary state [the current Chilean model’s emphasis that private actors should take over state functions where possible], which doesn’t guarantee fundamental social rights, creates institutions with the interests of working families in mind, with a new model of development which places at the center the value of work and coexists in harmony with the environment, then it is not going to be a very radical process.
Revolutionary theory is developed live, learning from previous attempts and the historical context in which they are made. What has the Chilean feminist movement contributed?
I think the feminist movement has played an extraordinary role in the political debate, both in the streets, inside homes, in the Constitutional Convention, and in Congress. Julieta Kirkwood [Chilean feminist sociologist, 1936–85] was spot-on about the importance of this debate, that the revolution is also at home, in bed.
We no longer speak only of overcoming neoliberalism or questioning capitalism, but we also speak of a marriage that must be broken, the marriage of neoliberalism with patriarchy. The neoliberal model is based on and uses this form of gender domination to generate processes of capital accumulation as well.
You have said that feminism is inherently anti-capitalist.
I don’t know if I said it in those words, but I do believe that. I am a Marxist-Feminist. If feminism does not have a Marxist perspective, or if feminism doesn’t strive toward overcoming neoliberalism, then it’s incomplete, it will end up reduced to a liberal feminism that aims almost exclusively at issues of institutional parity, rather than a change in the model.
I am an advocate of gender parity in all state institutions, but if we stick with that and do not question the production model, the model of accumulation, the generation of wealth, the distribution of wealth, and the value of work that today is not remunerated, then we will continue to promote a model of injustice and inequality.
The struggle between the search for justice and the search for consensus with the Right is clearly visible in the Constitutional Convention. The experience of the 1973 coup d’état shows what the Chilean right can do if it feels provoked. What do you say to those who say the search for consensus is safer in the long run?
The most important consensus is among the great majorities of the Chilean people: a gathering of forces from the popular classes and of progressive sectors. It is all too easy for the Chilean left to put its divisions on display. Meanwhile, the Chilean right fight to the death among themselves in the media, but when it comes to defending their economic interests they quickly fall in line. They have much more class consciousness, unfortunately.
I believe that dialog is always an option, I’ve been in Congress for eight years and — believe me — I’ve tried. But there are those who simply will not give in, and those who do not want to give in will protect their pockets to the death. Imagine, the president of the republic, one of the world’s biggest billionaires, never even gave a thought to levying a tax on the superrich — something simple, temporary, minimal. He privileged his economic and class interests before the common good and before supporting working families that were going through a very bad time in the pandemic.
So, when this political sector in Chile, which is a minority but has a lot of power, calls for consensus, it’s basically to whitewash the differences. In Chile, the only thing consensus politics has been good for is to make everything stay the same, to impose pretend agreements and pretend changes, but ultimately without questioning or changing the structural bases of a model of profound social injustice.
Thank you very much, Congresswoman. Good luck in the campaign — and I wish you a good rest if that is what you actually want, not a ministry under a future President Gabriel Boric.
[Laughs]. It’s going to be difficult.