“I’m Blind, but I Can Clearly See What’s Happening in Chile”

An interview with Chilean senator Fabiola Campillai

Fabiola Campillai. Photo: El Mostrador

Campillai. 38, is one of the main advocates for the Amnesty Law for prisoners of the 2019 social uprising, during which she lost her vision.

By Silvia Peña Pinilla (El Mostrador)

HAVANA TIMES – This is the first interview that independent senator Fabiola Campillai has given as a member of Parliament, in which she speaks about how, after being hit by a tear gas grenade thrown by a police officer, which disfigured part of her face, leaving her blind, without smell or taste, she found the strength to push the ideals she’s held ever since she was a young woman. Resident, worker, she became the only blind senator in Chile’s history, winning the first national majority.

Today, 38-year-old Campillai is a living symbol of victims of human rights violations in democracy and one of the main advocates for the Amnesty Law for prisoners of the 2019 social uprising, which will be voted on in the next few days. Unlike her peers she is also in favor of eliminating the Senate and having a different Chamber.

She has a clear, sweet and firm voice, which she raises when she gets passionate about a subject. Despite her eyes no longer having sight, she stares straight ahead during our conversation, keeping her “gaze” as if she could see me and gesturing with her hands as she speaks. She is sitting down, with her back to the window that overlooks the Justice Courts on Compañía street – in her office at the Senate in Santiago. She works here alongside her team on Mondays and Thursdays, each week. She travels to Valparaiso on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

“When I don’t have to go to Congress, I make it a priority to travel to the provinces. I began by visiting independent mayors in the Metropolitan Region. I’ll meet soon with organizations. It’s a lot of work, but I want to meet with everyone. They asked me to never forget them, that there were lots of things they needed, when I went to ask for their votes. I know that not every community is the same, but they each have their shortcomings… There are 52 communities, because they voted for me everywhere, more in some than others, but they are hoping I visit all of them.”

In the eastern region too?

She smiles and adds: “As well… Everybody is waiting for us to be with them and this is what I want, to work for them and with them.”

Campillai Rojas became the first blind senator in Chile’s history, winning 402,784 votes (15.17% of the total vote) and, as a result, the top national majority. She is a member of the Commission on Human Rights, Nationality and Citizenship; the Special Commission responsible for processing draft bills linked to children and teenagers, as well as the Ethics and Transparency Committee.

Her first objective, which has brought her a scuffle or two, like with senator Manuel Jose Ossandon – which she prefers not to comment on – is to push through the Amnesty Law for prisoners of the social uprising. “I hope it is voted in straight away and we can have our young people free on the street,” she says.

It’s been delayed once, how do you think it’s going to progress? Are there enough votes for this law?

Prospects aren’t looking good right now, or in the future, but we have to be ready to look for another way to get our young people out of jail and to make reparations. We have young people who have spent over a year in pre-trial detention, two years in some cases. It’s too much! We need to analyze strategies for this, we need to do this, but we will continue to fight for freedom today. I’m very focused and doing everything I can for amnesty.

In the composition of Senate forces, Campillai works with Apruebo Dignidad, but she votes independently: “We share a lot of thoughts, there may be political agreements, but my independence will always come first, don’t doubt that. My last word is as an independent member.”

It is this independence that led her to ask the Constitutional Convention (CC) to eliminate the Senate, which she is a member of. “That’s where laws get stuck, we see how they are voted in by the Chamber of members of Parliament and then, this progress comes to a grinding halt in the Upper Chamber, they run into barriers.”

What do you believe creates this roadblock?

A lot of factors… There is an elite, a different political caste in the Senate. The reality is that I am there because the people put me there, but I will go as far as the Convention says I can go. That’s what I think and what I represent. I’m going to keep my head held high, saying things I believe and voting with full awareness and at the head of a country, of a people that elected me.

What do you think about the Constitutional Convention’s work?

I support the Convention’s work, and I reaffirm my commitment to those who are writing the new Constitution every day, because we can’t forget that the vast majority of them were elected by the people, so that they can reflect our needs, demands and principles in the document.

A Rejection campaign seems to be growing recently, what do you feel about this?

I think what the Right is doing is very predictable: they have always got on well with terror campaigns. Of course, they create them themselves just to scare the general population, just like they’ve done so many times throughout History. It’s obvious that they were going to start lying from the start, but we shouldn’t let down our guard or relax just because it’s obvious. We must put all of our energy into refuting their lies, both from the Right as well as the media that repeat them; and clearly explain the importance of what is being approved by the Plenary and commissions. I’m now calling on everyone to vote in the new Constitution on September 4th, without any fear or doubts, and I put myself at the service of the Convention to go out into communities to get them download the document.

At the first session of the Human Rights Commission

How do you think your first month in the Senate went?

It’s just beginning, let’s see how this goes…

Your candidacy responded to a social movement, do you see yourself in politics for a long time?

I would have no problem in continuing to really work with the people, it’s what I like doing because I’m here for them and I will carry on, if they want me to. That’s because I want a better future for my children, for them to access better education, healthcare and for them to be able to have a dignified home and pension tomorrow, which isn’t the case right now. I also want them to have all the rights that have been denied or limited. Today, I fight so that what happened to me doesn’t happen again in the future, so not one more person is mutilated, so that my family can live a calm and peaceful life in this country. I am very hopeful this will happen, and I am a person that fights today so that this happens.

Coming into office

The senator goes to Fundacion Luz every week, where she has classes on how to move around on the street, use a cane and also use a cellphone. This foundation and Usach have written up a document that they submitted to Congress last December, with the objective of letting Campillai exercise her official functions without any problems in Congress.

A voice software was one of the appeals, which allows her to listen to all the documents she can’t read (everything works off of texts, minutes, records, etc.), getting rid of wires and other obstacles in corridors, as well as in the chamber. A couple of modifications were added to the technical requirements of the Senate and she is allowed a personal assistant in the Chamber, who narrates everything she can’t see. Marco Cornejo, her husband, has also been hired as her personal driver. The argument was made that she travel with a person she absolutely trusts, who would help her during the inauguration and with her health condition. She already has a computer with a voice program, but she still doesn’t have audio access to every legislative document and the Congress’ Library.

“There are around 3 million people like us in Chile, with some form of disability and a lot still needs to be done to level the playing field in things as simple as being able to move around safely on the street. When we went to register our candidacies, we had to go up four floors because the building didn’t have an elevator. I was with Carlos Astudillo that day, who was on crutches,” she adds.

She has a very close team that helps and surrounds her at all times, which is mainly formed of people who worked on the campaign. Professionals who come from social organizations and have experience in this field.

Carlos Astudillo is her political advisor, victim of military repression; photographer Nicole Kramm, responsible for digital media and image, she also suffered an eye injury at the hands of the police; Yerka Avila, head of cabinet, who worked on the campaign, and she has worked with victims of the State as a psychologist; Pedro Carrasco Salvatierra is her legal advisor; and Daniela Barria, her head of communications.

“My husband Marco Cornejo is my driver, my colleague, the person who looks after me. He was allowed to work with me because of my health condition. On the ground I have Valeska Alvarez, Ivan Valdes, Leonel Cadiz, who also worked with me before in solidarity, and Santiago Mardones. There is also Claudia Ahumada, of course, my personal assistant, who is a social assistant by profession and who I met because our children play soccer together. She is me, my eyes. We have a great team, we’re new to this, but not when it comes to working with people.”

Leader of the herd

Fabiola Campillai has a tattoo on her right forearm: six elephants, linked together by their trunks and tails, are walking in a line. “I have to get them touched up because some of them look like anteaters,” she jokes. She explains the meaning as she passes her left hand over the inked skin. “The big one walking ahead is me, the leader of the herd. The second one, the smaller one, is my eldest daughter (22); then there’s my son-in-law; then there’s my second daughter (18); Bastian (11), my youngest son; and the big elephant at the end of the line is my husband, who protects us. This is my herd, my family,” she explains.

She hasn’t changed her surroundings now she’s become a senator. She continues to live in the town Cinco Pinos in San Bernardo, where she was born and raised. She’s very well-known there because of all the years she organized activities for the community. She formed the Neighborhood Support Committee with her neighbors and collaborated with the Neighbor Board. She was also a firefighter and soccer player at the industrial plant where she worked.

“Despite the fact it was the police in my own town who shot at me, it’s where I feel the safest. That’s where my mother, my brothers and sisters, my neighbors, people I’ve known ever since I was a little girl.  My daughters and my son were born there, it’s a place I’d find very hard to leave. There are neighborhoods where you don’t even know who your neighbor is, but we all know each other here, nobody comes without you knowing.”

It was down one of these streets that 36-year-old Fabiola lost her sight, as well as her sense of smell and taste, on the night of November 26, 2019. Three of her five senses. She had the night shift as the pastry assistant at the Carrozi company, and her sister Ana Maria was walking with her to the bus stop so she could go to work. There were protests on the street… After some shots of tear gas, she fell covered in blood and became the second person to become blind as a result of police repression after 18-O. Gustavo Gatica was the first person.

The trial against former captain of the 14th Police Precinct in San Bernardo, Patricio Maturana – under house arrest today – will begin on May 9th and is scheduled to last 45 days. Along with the senator’s defense, led by lawyer Alejandra Arriaza, and the work of public prosecutor Paola Zarate, plaintiffs against the former police officer are: the Chilean State Defense Council (CDE), the National Institute of Human Rights (INDH), San Bernardo Local Authority and the Palacio de La Moneda’s Victims Human Rights Group. The INDH is seeking a 15-year prison sentence, while the Public Prosecutor’s Office is seeking 12 years.

A few days ago, Maturana requested revision of their safeguards

The Judicial power has to catch up with what is happening with my case and not carry on delaying the process, we are a step away from the trial and he thinks that his rights are being violated. It really is a mockery for his part, thinking about what he did to me, because he did violate my rights: I’m blind today, I have no sense of taste, I have no sense of smell and I have life-long physical damages. It changed my life forever. I really hope that he isn’t given any more safeguards.

Senator-elect Fabiola Campillai walks around the Senate’s Chamber, before taking office on March 11th.  PHOTO: LEONARDO RUBILAR CHANDIA / AGENCIAUNO

The formula for a primary majority

Despite long term physical damage and trauma, she says that she feels the same on the inside. “The difference is that I don’t see, but I’m a very strong woman, just like before. I’ve always been so. I was a single mother, I raised my two oldest daughters on my own for a long time. I am like any one of you, I worked in lots of different jobs. When my young son was a little boy, I sold sopaipillas at the bus stop with a cart, and then I sold salads. Just like a lot of women, who are father and mother at the same time and need to support their families. I’ve done it all. Maybe that’s what made me strong before and today too.”

She met her husband, Marco Antonio Cornejo, while working at a store in Central Station; he was a sales assistant too. They married in 2014 and he is Bastian’s father. “He has been a father to my daughters, we get by together as a family.”

“What happened to me became a strength. I have always worked in solidarity. Because even though we don’t want it this way, healthcare in Chile is awful and we need bingo cards, full cards, single dishes, the lottery to fund it. I know this, but ever since I’ve been shot, I see what’s happening in Chile clearly, despite being blind.”

What do you see without seeing?

Extreme poverty in lots of places, and awful education and healthcare for those who don’t have money. Even though I had to wait in line lots of times at the doctor’s office, I thought this was normal. I now realize that it shouldn’t be like this, and that healthcare can’t just be for those who can pay. The same goes for housing, education. Even though I’m blind, I can see what I couldn’t see, a lot clearer now.

Is that why you decided to run for the Senate?

I felt like there had been a huge human rights violation, which I was a part of. Not getting justice for me or for any of the victims, I thought that a candidacy was a more concrete option for us to ask for justice for everyone. My senate campaign was based on this fight so things would change. I may not be a superhero, but I’m going to do everything in my power to change this from where I am today.

What was the winning formula to get a majority in the primaries?

It was a great task. I never thought I would win so many votes. I wasn’t expecting it. Even though I knew I had the people’s support, because I felt it during the campaign, we weren’t expecting so many votes. That’s because people are bored of the politics that don’t represent us. They want new leaders, opportunities to be heard, because we the candidates are going to the population, to the street and not just during our campaigns. People felt I was close to them. They gave me their vote and support. Many people believed in me and in the project of an independent senate campaign, without a political party… Because candidates traditionally end up becoming puppets… When you belong to a party, you must do what the party says, but when you’re independent, I go and vote according to what I believe, about what people really need and representing them. I don’t owe anyone a single peso.

That’s true, the senator spent less that she could have. “The people working with me today were willing to run a free campaign. We spent money on flyers, mobilizations, and lunch for collaborators. Servel gave 47 million pesos (public funding depending on votes received) and also 3 million donated by the people. This gave us a total of 50 million pesos for expenses (= US $62,000). That was my budget. We spent half in the end, approximately 25 million, more or less. Not even a quarter of what a senate candidate normally spends. I could have spent a lot more money because I got almost 500,000 votes.”

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