John Dinges examines the hope represented by the election of Gabriel Boric as Chile’s new president in an article in The Progressive.
On March 11, thirty-six-year-old Gabriel Boric—the youngest Chilean president ever to have been elected— took office in an environment of enormous expectation and almost revolutionary optimism.
A half century ago, Chile blazed a path with the election of Salvador Allende, a socialist who promised that his government would elevate peasants and workers to the level of dignity and prosperity long denied them by Chile’s entrenched aristocracy and conservative business class. It was to be socialism, but with democracy and a rollicking free press—a revolution, Allende often said, with empanadas and red wine.
“Today we need to speak, tomorrow, all together, we have to get to work.”
But the euphoria of that period, shared by progressives around the world, ended in tragedy. Allende’s coalition was riven by internal divisions, and his economic plans were no match for the international embargoes and internal obstacles delivered by the business class. In 1973, Chile’s military, encouraged by the United States, overthrew Allende in a violent coup d’etat, bringing about the seventeen-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, infamous for massive human rights abuses and thousands of deaths and disappearances.
The worst of the repression landed on the unionized workers and farmers who had trusted that a leftist political movement would be able to overcome the entrenched power of the conservative elite. The dictatorship finally ended and was replaced by an uneven democracy beginning in 1990.
Now, newly inaugurated President Boric wants the Chilean people to try again, to trust once more that they can succeed where past progressive movements failed. He calls for including a broader range of disadvantaged groups and identities—working people, women, seniors, Indigenous peoples, students, and “discriminated genders.”
Boric knows the history, sadness, humiliation, and anger associated with the fall of Allende. He embraced it on his first day in office.
In his inaugural speech, Boric addressed the crowd from a window in the Moneda presidential palace overlooking Constitution Square, paraphrasing Allende’s final words broadcast on radio moments before the military stormed the presidential palace.
“Today we need to speak, tomorrow, all together, we have to get to work,” he told the gathering. “And as Salvador Allende predicted almost fifty years ago, we are once again opening the grand avenues where free men—free men and free women will go forward to build a better society.”
I, a much too idealistic American living in Chile, was there that terrible day in 1973, listening to Allende on my transistor radio and recording it on my tape recorder. He said he had faith in Chile, and that “other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment.”
Has this moment come at last?
Boric clearly sees his movement grasping the torch handed to the future by Allende. He harkens from Punta Arenas, the southernmost major city in this long and narrow country facing the Pacific Ocean and pointing at Antarctica. He comes from a family of nineteenth century immigrants from Croatia. His father and grandfather had middle management jobs in the oil industry, making him the only Chilean president to come from an authentically middle class background.
Boric earned his political chops organizing students in his high school and then at the University of Chile, where he studied law but never earned a degree. He became one of the most visible figures in a mass student movement, demanding better school funding and free university tuition. In 2019, the movement grew to a national uprising that carried out protests in cities all over the country, including filling Santiago’s main Alameda Avenue with upwards of a million people.
The movement held weekly protests in a major plaza in central Santiago, re-christening it “Dignity Plaza.” When Boric and other movement leaders organized a new political party, aiming at the presidency, they called the party Apruebo Dignidad, or “Approve Dignity.”
Dignity defines the society Boric is trying to build. “Together we will construct the change toward a country of justice and dignity,” he said in his inaugural address, adding, “Dignity, what a beautiful word.” It is not just sentiment, but a distinguishing value.
In the recent election, Boric’s rightwing opponent, José Antonio Kast, attempted to rehabilitate the image of Pinochet and his dictatorship, saying he would impose order, end the evolution away from traditional cultural values, and double down on neoliberalism as a formula for growth.
Boric won in what passes for a landslide in Chile: 55 percent in a runoff against Kast. The traditional center-left parties, while not part of the Boric coalition, still gave their support. And Boric named leaders from those parties to major cabinet positions, including Mario Marcel, a Socialist, as Finance Minister. Marcel earned wide respect—from left, right, and center—in his former post as president of Chile’s Central Bank.
Boric is described as further to the left than those parties. Indeed, the small but well organized Communist Party is a critical ally in the Apruebo Dignidad coalition, and Boric’s spokesperson, Camila Vallejos, is a Communist.
But Boric seldom talks about socialism, even though his programs call for massive new spending on education, health, and social security. The word does not appear in his inaugural address. He has called for greater state control of copper mining—Chile’s main source of wealth, which is already partly state owned. But he does not—in contrast to Allende’s statist model—call for state ownership of industry and major financial institutions.
Instead, he promises to represent “all Chileans,” work with the opposition, listen to their criticisms, and guarantee their freedom and right to dissent. That will soon be tested, as the first item on his legislative agenda is to raise taxes, in a country with some of the lowest tax rates and least amount of tax enforcement for the wealthy in all of Latin America.
Dignity bespeaks guaranteeing a rightful place in society for LGBTQ+ people, for Indigenous peoples who comprise about 10 percent of the population, and for women. His cabinet has a majority of women, the first time that has happened in Latin America.
A major challenge for Boric will be how to intervene in the process of drawing up a new constitution. The same social movement that brought Boric to the presidency voted even more overwhelmingly last year to replace the Pinochet-era constitution, but the process has not been going well. Approval of all provisions requires a two-thirds vote of all 155 elected members. Last week, for example, a set of fifty provisions dealing with private property, expropriations, and residual rights to Indigenous lands were all rejected, some not even gaining a simple majority.
The new president has no official role in the process, except to ensure its funding. But there is growing consensus that Boric’s leadership is urgently needed to right the ship before it founders.
The newspaper El Mercurio, a powerful voice for the business elites and conservative cultural values, did not express opposition in its editorial on the inauguration, but it did challenge Boric to use his influence in the Constitutional Convention to “make it possible for the varying political and cultural sensibilities to feel welcomed by [what is written]. If that does not occur, the constitutional process will have been a failure and the image of the new coalition that has arrived in power will be weakened.”
Boric indicates that he welcomes this kind of “constructive criticism.”
I met with Senator Isabel Allende, late-president Allende’s daughter, who still lives in the home on Guardia Vieja Street where her father raised her. She says
Boric had made a very visible demonstration of his respect and admiration for Allende and his legacy. As he approached the presidential palace his first day, before giving his address, Boric stopped in front of a statue of Allende just outside the building. He paused with his hand over his heart and bowed his head slightly in a show of respect, before going into the building to address the crowd some hours later from the window that Allende had used so many times.
“Of course the tears flowed,” she says, “It was tremendously emotional to see him make that gesture, so full of symbolism, to raise up the figure [of Allende].”
She adds, “I am allowing myself the pleasure of feeling great excitement and hope, again.”
Este artículo se publicó originalmente en The Progressive el 15 de marzo de 2022 “Chile is Making History–Again”