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LATIN AMERICA | 21-12-2021 15:44

New president at 35 thrusts Chile back into exceptionalism role

While Gabriel Boric is sometimes described as part of a leftward shift in Latin America, he seems to be of a new, more globalist, breed.

Chile, whose name means “end of the earth” in local Mapuche, is as isolated as any nation, surrounded by impenetrable Andean mountains, stretched along the Pacific, in effect an island of 19 million. 

But from the tip of South America, it has pushed its way into global consciousness more than once in a pattern some call Chilean exceptionalism. It was the first to elect a Marxist leader – Salvador Allende in 1970. He was overthrown by his own military which set up an abusive and infamous dictatorship, then yielded to peaceful democratic transition in 1990, leading to one of the stablest eras of neoliberal wealth creation anywhere. In 2010, it was the first South American nation welcomed into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 

This week’s election of Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old socialist and former student leader, as president, marks another moment of Chilean exceptionalism. Boric has innumerable challenges – a divided congress, severe economic slowdown and mistrust over his alliance with the communist party – but he’s a millennial who fits the outlook of many of his generation, a leftist, to be sure, but not of the old school. 

His victory on Sunday over José Antonio Kast would be as if, in the next US election, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ran against Mike Pence – and won.  

While Boric is sometimes described as part of a leftward shift in Latin America, he seems to be of a new, more globalist, breed. The older leftists – Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina and Peru’s recently elected president, Pedro Castillo, never criticise the hard-left regimes of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Boric openly rejects them as failures and tragic farces. 

“Many point to a new ‘pink tide’ in Latin America after Boric’s victory,” noted Oliver Stuenkel, professor of international relations at Brazil’s Fundação Getúlio Vargas. “But Chile’s president-elect has very little in common with Castillo in Peru and even less with Venezuela’s authoritarian regime. Boric is a progressive. Castillo and several other iconic left-wing leaders are social conservatives. That may allow Boric to become the face of Latin America’s new left, inspiring other candidates in the region.”

Boric talks very differently from the traditional Latin American left. Here he was on Sunday after voting in his native Punta Arenas, in the country’s south: “We are a new generation that is entering politics with clean hands, a warm heart and a cool head. We are sure that we will make Chile more human, decent and egalitarian.”

If the word hadn’t fallen into such disfavor, he’d be described as woke.

 

Bookish and populist 

Soon to be one of the world’s youngest heads of state, Boric is both bookish and populist. When he gave a Zoom interview to Bloomberg News some months ago, he was dressed casually and surrounded in his apartment by bookshelves typical of a graduate student. 

He reads academic histories on the welfare state, proudly wears tattoos (one representing his native windswept Patagonia), and carries a photo of pop singer Taylor Swift in his breast pocket. He has trimmed his once-wild hair and scraggly beard and now looks rather like a tech entrepreneur. Educated at a British school in Chile, he speaks fluent English. Apart from the urgent need to end inequality, he can’t stop talking about global warming and the rights of women and minorities. 

Boric has a steady woman partner but is unmarried. He embraces gender fluidity and gay rights. On the treatment of the Mapuche, the native people mostly in the south long discriminated against, he sounds like Justin Trudeau of Canada regarding the First Nations there – making sure they are integrated equally is a high priority. And while Chile is the world’s biggest exporter of copper, he dreams of a green future rather than mining and said his government will reject projects that hurt the environment.

 

‘Superb Listener’

Brian Winter, editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly in New York, writes that “when we hosted Gabriel Boric for a small breakfast in 2018, he was the first guest of honour ever to show up in a black Nirvana T-shirt and jeans.” He added, “Boric didn’t strike me as some fire-breathing provocateur – he was sensitive, humble, and above all a superb listener.”

Boric has made clear that if he is to be successful, it will only come about through compromise and negotiation with those to his right. He famously broke with his leftist allies two years ago when he agreed to the rewriting of the Chilean constitution left over from the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.  

None of this means Boric will be able to do the job he seeks or escape pressures from his left. If the business class, globally and locally, already sceptical, loses faith completely, he will not find any economic steps easy, let alone the socially progressive things he hopes to do. But he plans to try – and in that alone he represents Chilean exceptionalism.

As Jennifer Pribble of the University of Richmond said of him before he was elected, “The new left that comes with Boric would be one with a strong pillar on issues of feminism and sustainability, where global warming cannot be the cost of economic growth. He is a unique leader for Latin America.”

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by Ethan Bronner, Bloomberg

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