Daniel Pereira is a school teacher in Santiago, who until recently wasn’t really involved in politics. But on the night of 18 October 2019, he found himself at the centre of a movement that would transform Chile. That day, he had taken part in protests led by school students against a 30 peso rise in metro fares, which quite unexpectedly became the spark for Chile’s ‘social explosion’. With the metro closed, Daniel walked home as people erected barricades around him, to find his neighbours in the street banging pots and pans. “At that moment I said to myself: ‘at last, this country has exploded’. I remember that scene as clearly as if it happened yesterday.”
Across the city, the streets filled with people, some there to protest the violence of the police, others to express generalised rage at the elite. Soon, assemblies began meeting in almost every neighbourhood, sharing stories, organising protests and coordinating food distribution as supermarkets shut down. Daniel vividly remembers standing behind a girl at a protest as she was blinded by a teargas canister. The political demands of the movement came to gravitate around a call to re-write Chile’s constitution, which was installed by the Pinochet dictatorship and has enshrined a particularly extreme form of neoliberalism for fifty years.
Last Sunday, those scenes repeated themselves, but the crowds were there to celebrate. After weeks of all-out campaigning, Daniel voted at 8am and spent the rest of the day observing the count, before decamping to a local park to watch the results. “While we were walking there,” Daniel says, “I couldn’t stop thinking about the people killed by the police during the uprising, and those who were disappeared by Pinochet.” As the result came through, the tears flowed and the car horns blared. “We won. We, the people, did it. My girlfriend came with a loudspeaker and we played Para Que Nunca Más [So That Never Again – a classic Chilean protest song] as loud as we could.”
Gabriel Boric’s election marks the end of one chapter in Chile’s recent history. The revolt that began in 2019 created the conditions for a popular insurgency against inequality, and for the elevation of a new generation of left leaders – among them Gabriel Boric of the Broad Front, but also communists like Camilla Vallejo – many of whom made their name in student protests in 2011. In the end, the uprising was funnelled into the institutions, as politicians signed a cross-party agreement to call a referendum on establishing a new constitution. There is still much debate within the Chilean left about the events of the past two years (Boric signed the agreement, while the Communist party and others opposed it) but ultimately the chapter has now closed with a clear conclusion: the left won. The referendum on the constitutional assembly was successful; the elections to populate it were dominated by the left; and now, Gabriel Boric is the president-elect of Chile – the youngest in the country’s history and the first leftwing president since Salvador Allende.
His victory on Sunday was never a foregone conclusion. In the first round, Jose Antonio Kast – the far right candidate – beat Boric by two points, shocking many progressive Chileans into action. On polling day, Chilean TV showed buses mysteriously parked up in garages as public transport ground to a halt, a move that many activists believe was a deliberate attempt by bus companies to suppress turnout: the Chilean electoral commission went so far as to raise a formal complaint with the incumbent transport minister.
In pure psephological terms, the result is significant. Boric is the first-ever successful candidate to have come from behind after the first round. His campaign reached a new layer of voters, apparently inspired by the prospect of radical change. Turnout increased from 47.3% in the first round to 55.6% in the second, the highest figure in Chile since the end of compulsory voting. Boric won by 10 points and received 4.6m votes, more than any candidate before him.
From March, Chile will have a president committed to stripping away the economic model that has weighed down on Chile’s poor in recent decades, creating a decent public healthcare system, and reforming education and pensions. He is an outspoken ally of LGBT and feminist causes, a fact that really matters in a country in which abortion is still only legal in cases of rape or endangered life. Mining (for copper, lithium and other minerals) is a large part of Chile’s economy, and heavy industry has come at a huge environmental and public health cost (“this is the dump of Chile”, one woman told me at a campaign rally in the northern desert city of Calama, “and it’s known for three things – minerals, respiratory disease and cancer”). Boric’s pledge to decarbonise the economy and block some new mines came at an electoral cost, and has put him at loggerheads with mining bosses, but remains a centrepiece of his platform.
A difficult road.
But the road ahead is far from simple. Unsurprisingly, Boric is likely to face a campaign of sabotage by international capital. Both the Chilean stock market and the Chilean peso plunged on Monday in response to the results, with the peso now having lost 20% of its value since the constitutional convention was established. Financial journals are already awash with thinly veiled threats written in impeccable technical jargon. Some, like Diego Pereira of JP Morgan Chase, are even blunter: “I don’t think the markets, particularly locals, are going to give him the benefit of the doubt. During the transition period, he will be forced to take actions to show that he’s going to be moderate.”
Diego Vela is the executive director of Rumbo Colectivo, an influential think tank with links to Revolución Democrática, one of the many parties that makes up Gabriel Boric’s Broad Front. “The initial period before the constitutional referendum will be a big moment for us,” he says. “Chile has suffered for many years with public disillusionment in politics – especially among the left’s traditional support base – but now there are a lot of expectations from voters, and we only get one shot at meeting those expectations.”
When it takes office in March, the incoming administration will have no majority in either the upper or lower house of the Chilean congress. The powers of the president in the Chilean system are strong, however, and Boric will have the ability to shift economic policy and to meet a series of commitments relating to human rights. During the social explosion of 2019, the Chilean police were accused of serious human rights violations by international monitors, and the new president will have the power to instigate investigations into these and to issue pardons for those who were convicted in the course of the riots. The latter of these two is viewed as a litmus test by many activists, and is a promise that has been reaffirmed repeatedly in recent weeks by the Boric campaign.
For everything that requires a congressional mandate, broad political alliances must be built. As Diego Vela explains, this means the new administration will probably take its first steps on those issues with the most consensus and public support. “So for instance, in recent years, pensions and the health system have been a critical issue for the population,” he says. “We have a terrible privatised system that reproduces social inequalities, leaving many people destitute. We should be able to raise the minimum level of pensions fairly quickly, and we are confident that there will be support from other parties for a deeper reform in health and pensions. Public pressure is a significant factor, because these are problems that most Chileans live with, either personally or through older relatives. ”
Running in parallel to Congress and the new administration will be the constitutional convention, whose proposals will be put to a second referendum no later than September. A victory for Kast – who could have used his position to sabotage the work of the convention – was one of the last hopes for those parts of the old elite who wanted to block far-reaching change. Now, with a large left majority within the body, the road is open. The feminist movement has played a big role in the movements and upheavals of recent years, and it looks set to translate that energy into the creation of an avowedly feminist constitution. Activists I’ve spoken to are working on plans to enshrine a ‘caring state’ as well as a social one, recognising social reproduction in the basic laws of the country and running alongside the creation of a national care service. Also on the list are equal pay and the right to choose. All of these would represent significant advances in most European countries; in the context of Chile, they would be transformational.
Don’t abandon the streets.
The risk, of course, is that having won the election, social movements will ebb and leave the new government without any force that can support it or hold it to account. For the moment, at least, it seems like everyone understands this danger. “It’s crucial that social movements and ordinary people don’t stop pushing for their demands,” says Diego Vela. “Our aim is to work for them, and we don’t want to repeat what happened under the Concertacion when there was demobilisation. The rich will always have power – through companies and the media and so on – and we need to match that with social power.”
Nonetheless, the process of running for office, and of appearing like a statesman, has changed Boric and created some distance between him and the movements for whom he once spoke directly. The Broad Front was created in 2017 to represent a new social movement left, and to provide a radical alternative to a Communist party that was wedded to a policy of propping up centrist governments. Although Boric is very much from the radical left, and is still a member of the autonomist grouping Social Convergence, he is now widely perceived to represent a politics somewhere between the Communist party and the old centre-left. Time will tell if these perceptions merely reflect a moderation in Boric’s rhetoric and aesthetics, or the wishful thinking of many centrist politicians and commentators who have been forced to support him; or if they are a reflection of a real shift towards the centre.
Among many rank and file activists, the mood is one of hopeful realism. Eliana Nachar Escobar has her criticisms of Boric, but election night was a moment of relief. “I walked home slowly as if trying to digest the joy of what had happened,” she says. A veteran of many decades of struggle and an activist with the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) before and during the Pinochet years, she and her family were heavily involved in community organising during the latest round of protests. “A difficult and arduous road is coming,” she says. “Boric’s presidency will be a social democratic one and will advance slowly, but we must defend the constitutional convention, the new constitution and the new government.”
History is a graveyard lined with electoral projects like Boric’s, and the Chilean left knows this full well. The experience of Syriza in Greece, for instance, is widely understood. The Chilean left has a strong constitutionalist tradition, and a long history of relating to leftwing reformist governments. All of its traditions (from the social democrats through to communists and the revolutionary left) should understand the importance of, in Eliana’s words “not abandoning the streets” – that in order to deliver on their promises, “comrades in government” must be cajoled and pressured as well supported.
In the space of a few years, Chile has gone from a bastion of neoliberalism to the brink of social transformation. Mass movements have shaken the elite and changed the boundaries of what is possible. For all its divisions and missteps, the Chilean left has risen to the occasion. Now in power, the question is whether it has the collective strength to finally overcome the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship, and if Gabriel Boric has the resolve to lead it. With the far right having just amassed 45% of the vote, the price of failure is high
Michael Chessum is a socialist activist and writer based in London. His first book, This is Only the Beginning: The Making of a New Left, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2022.
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