Gabriel Boric’s vision for a different Chile

Credit: Paulo Slachevsky/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old political activist at the head of the leftist movement Apruebo Dignidad, is to become the youngest president in the history of Chile. Mr Boric was elected on 20 December, defeating his far-right rival José Antonio Kast by 10 points, and his presidency will be inaugurated in March 2022.

The president-elect’s programme focuses on democracy and social participation, on financial reforms, on climate change, on the environment, and on social rights. The new leader’s ‘enemies’ are Chile’s patriarchal heritage and neoliberalism.

We have spoken with two professors at Ca’ Foscari’s Department of Linguistics and Comparative Cultural StudiesLuis Beneduzi, Professor of History and Institutions of Latin America, and Vanni Pettinà, Professor at the Centro de Estudios Históricos de El Colegio de México and currently Visiting Professor at Ca’ Foscari.

Chile has had a change of heart and voted left. Is Pinochet’s legacy a thing of the past now?

L. Beneduzi: In Chile and in other Latin-American countries it is hard to say that dictatorship is ‘a thing of the past’, because justice and reconciliation trials have been late or ineffective. The crimes that Pinochet’s dictatorship committed against human rights have been punished very lightly. Since 2012, trials for crimes against human rights committed during dictatorships can be invalidated.

However, the climate of the most recent election has, in some ways, been similar to that of 1970s Chilean politics. Mr Kast, who defended Pinochet’s dictatorship, stood on the far right; on the opposite side was radical leftist Mr Boric, whose allies included members of the Communist Party. The step that is likely to emancipate Boric’s government from Pinochet’s political heritage is the economic reform programme. For the first time, Chile seems committed to abandoning neoliberalism and the ‘Chicago Boys’ who discouraged state intervention and encouraged privatisation — an approach which made the economy more dynamic, but also bred serious social inequality.

V. Pettinà: Mr Boric is initiating a true era of transformation. If it is successful, it will enable Chile to overcome the heritage of dictatorship. Justice and memory are issues on which Chile is not as forward-looking as other Latin American countries such as Argentina. In Chile, justice for the victims of Pinochet’s dictatorship has yet to be made.

I agree with Professor Beneduzi: the economic reform programme will be a testing ground for Chile, because this is the field in which dictatorship caused most harm, especially to the middle class — which is the majority of the population. The president-elect’s programme is more radical than those of the Concertación governments, i.e. of the alliances of Socialist and Christian Democrat parties that ruled Chile after the 1988 referendum. Mr Boric’s programme is about pensions, tax reforms, social policies, and public education. The constituent assembly has a progressive majority and will rewrite the Constitution which was adopted by Pinochet.

Who is Gabriel Boric?

V. P.: Mr Boric became a leader of the student movement in 2011. At that time, these organisations of students established important relations with the Chilean Communist Party. The more recent 2019 movement granted great visibility to its leaders, while the old Concertación parties remained in the background. This is the scenario in which Boric emerged as a political figure.

From a political perspective, Mr Boric is a new figure in Chile and in Latin America. On the one hand, he can be likened to the Spanish Podemos political movement or to US Congressperson Ocasio-Cortez. Mr Boric has already engaged in topics that the ‘old’ left has not fully understood, but which hold great appeal on new generations: climate change, feminism, LGBTQ rights

L. B.: We must remember that Mr Boric is not a political novice. He became a member of Parliament in 2014, and he has been active in politics with the Convergencia Social party, which flanks the Apruebo Dignidad movement.

Chile differs from many other South-American countries because it has experienced a radical process of privatisation. The social state has become increasingly weak. One of the strengths of the president-elect is that he advocates the reinstatement of state intervention.

For the first time in its history, Chile is being promised social equality, which involves raising taxes to favour greater state intervention. The excess of privatisation is an issue which is acutely felt in the country. An increasing number of retired people are committing suicide because the private pension system does not allow them to be self-sufficient.

I think that Mr Boric’s approach can be likened not only to that of Podemos, but also to that of Brazil’s President Lula in 2002. In order to gain votes in the centre and centre-left, Boric had to find a voice that sounded reformist but not too radical — he needed to be similar to the Pink Tide that crossed Latin America at the beginning of the 21st century. Mr Boric included in his social rhetoric the idea that “Chile is for everyone” and that economic growth must come with “keeping the books in order”, a topic which was crucial before the second ballot, a winning welfare strategy.

The markets, however, reacted negatively to Mr Boric’s victory, and Chile’s currency, the peso, lost 4 percentage points on Monday 20 December.

How can we interpret the result of this election in light of the history of Chile, and more generally, of the Latin-American ‘Pink Tide’?

L. B.: The so-called Pink Tide in Latin America was inaugurated by President Chavez in Venezuela at the end of the 20th century, and in some cases — such as Brazil — it brought about a social democratic change that involved many countries, including the government of President Bachelet in Chile. But President Bachelet’s government was so weak in terms of social policies that it does not fully qualify as part of the Pink Tide. Since 2014, the tide changed as right-wing parties rose to power. Between 2019 and 2020 we witnessed the downfall of conservative programmes, and perhaps a rekindling of the Pink Tide — consider, for example, the elections of President Fernández in Argentina, President Castillo in Perù, and now Mr Boric in Chile.

Mr Boric’s victory is important, because Chile has been a stronghold of neoliberalism in Latin America. Chile’s colours are changing, and this reformist project is also highly symbolic: it has inaugurated a new political discourse that might become crucial for Chile and for the entire region.

V. P.: When it comes to Chile’s symbolic value, we should remember that in the 1970s the country underwent one of the most important political experiments in Latin America: Salvador Allende’s rise to power. This had a political impact abroad, as well — for example, it influenced the Italian Communist Party. It was an attempt to reconcile social radicalism and democracy, and it was crushed by the military coup orchestrated by Pinochet’s army and the CIA.

Chile was a stronghold of democracy when Pinochet’s dictatorship stifled it. This makes it a good place for the Latin-American left to refashion itself. Gabriel Boric reminds us of Salvador Allende. Rather than a continuation of the Pink Tide, I see this as a big step forward in the renewal of a social project.

That being said, I also believe Mr Boric’s programme has some limitations. For example, international politics is hardly contemplated. Historically, Chile is a country that focuses on internal issues, rather than external ones. However, if Chile fails to pay more attention to its integration in the wider context of Latin America, I think it will struggle to obtain the desired results in terms of public health, education, and the economy. Let us consider the reform of taxation. Without a regional agreement on the taxation of multinational corporations, capital flows and investments, the reform is likely to be very bland. The same is true for commerce. These issues reveal that Mr Boric lacks political experience on a bigger scale. If he intends to use his political power to promote the integration of Latin American countries, he will have to learn quickly. 

L. B.: Given that a reduction of growth is forecasted, it is essential that Chile create new opportunities for economic and commercial integration. The markets’ negative reaction to the election is due precisely to this uncertainty — new strategies are required. A neoliberalist approach favoured Chile’s commercial agreements with other Latin American countries. The tax reform promised by Mr Boric is going to create a new scenario.

The president-elect will also have to face a Congress in which he does not have the majority. This might also showcase his ability to liaise and to negotiate. During his inaugural speech, Mr Boric promised to speak with and listen to the people, but whether he will be able to do so with the opposition of the Congress remains to be seen.

How have the EU and the US reacted to the new president of Chile?

L. B.: President Biden feared that the winner would be Mr Kast, who is quite friendly with Mr Trump. However, at the moment US foreign policy is focused on China — Latin America is in the background. Even though the EU, too, was hoping against Mr Kast’s victory — given that his approach goes against EU principles — it still does not seem to focus its gaze on Latin America.

This general lack of interest is an issue, because it leaves the field open for China, who has many vested interests in South America. Chilean minerals, such as lithium, are hugely important for the contemporary technological industry, which makes Chile an important commercial partner for China. The US and the EU should be more interested in countries like Chile. Some of Mr Boric’s sustainable projects would even benefit European businesses and technology. 

V. P.: I agree that Latin America is regarded by the US as an area of secondary importance. During Mr Trump’s presidency, Latin America receivd some attention due to the conflict on immigration. At the moment, President Biden is focussing on internal issues and on China.

The lack of interest in Latin American countries has allowed China to make massive investments. The strong ‘presence’ of China so close to US national borders will eventually force the US to rekindle its relations with Latin America. A president like Mr Boric might be a good interlocutor in projects that aim to ‘contain’ China’s reach.

The EU is displaying a provincial attitude in foreign policy. Its relations with Latin America are close to null, but Latin America has plenty of raw materials, water resources, and forests. The EU should establish a dialogue with Latin America, but at the moment it is being nearsighted. When it comes to the environment and sustainable energy policies, a partnership between the EU and Latin American countries would be beneficial. Brussels should regard Mr Boric’s Chile as an important partner. 

Author: Federica Scotellaro / Translator: Joangela Ceccon