by Andrea Mulas. Researcher at the Lelio and Lisli Basso Foundation
We are in the presidential palace of La Moneda surrounded and attacked by the Chilean armed forces commanded by Augusto Pinochet. The last words of the President of the Republic, Salvador Allende, represent a political-moral testament that leaves its mark on the country’s history.
After seventeen years of ferocious dictatorship, steeped in terror, desapareciones and murders, and the return to a democratic regime based on a delicate balance between the forces of the center-left (the Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia) and the pro-pinochettist apparatuses, on Sunday December 19th, Chile’s “long transition” towards full democracy can be finally considered to be over.
Gabriel Boric, 35, deputy of the Partido Convergencia, candidate of the center-left forces gathered in the Apruebo Dignidad coalition, won the election against all odds with 56% of the preferences and more than 4.6 million votes. He is the youngest and most voted President of the Republic in the history of Chile.
Born in the southern city of Punta Arenas, three thousand kilometers south of Santiago, in 2010 he was elected president of the Center of Law Students of the University of Chile and in a short time he became one of the representatives of the student mobilizations that demand a free public school and good quality. The movement has its roots in the 2006 high school protests against the government led by socialist Michelle Bachelet, the so-called “Revolución pingüina,” a name deriving from the colors of the protesters’ school uniform.
Boric, leader of what has been called the “nueva izquierda” (the new Left), with twelve percentage points of detachment, defeated José Antonio Kast, representative of the ultra-Right, who nevertheless declared nostalgia for the Pinochet era and aimed to strengthen the conservative line and encourage reactionary spikes, fueled by the years of Sebastian Piñeira’s mandate, as in the case of the popular protests that exploded on October 18, 2019.
This so-called “social estallido” (social outburst) has in fact exposed the lacerated social fabric of the Andean country, the weakness of its state apparatus and the contradictions of its development model. This is demonstrated by the fact that it was not a sporadic event by extremists, as numerous peaceful demonstrations took place throughout the country with support from 65% of Chileans. A week later, more than a million people demonstrated on the streets of the capital.
The Piñeira government, on that occasion, did not open a line of dialogue. They instead chose to decree a state of emergency in the provinces of Santiago and Chacabuco: “The goal is very simple but very profound: to ensure public order. Ensuring the tranquility of the inhabitants of the city of Santiago, protecting both public and private assets, and above all guaranteeing the rights of each of our compatriots who have been seriously endangered by the actions of real criminals who respect nothing or anyone.”
The de facto measure limited the rights of assembly and movement and allowed the military to carry out police functions, with results typical of a military regime and certainly not of a rule of law. According to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), from October 18 to January 31, 2019 there were 29 victims, 13,046 injured during the protests and about 23,000 arrests who suffered various abuses. This is in addition to dozens of attacks on journalists and photojournalists by the security forces.
On the other hand, Boric’s entire electoral campaign was dedicated to promoting the themes of health security, migration and social justice, being joined as spokesperson by the thirty-five-year-old Izkia Siches, President of the Colégio Médico de Chile, one of the most charismatic figures and beloved during the pandemic.
In his first speech delivered in front of thousands of Chileans who invaded the streets of the capital to celebrate the victory by chanting “el pueblo unido jamás será vencido” (“the people united will never be defeated”), Boric indicated the new line of his government that collects and synthesizes the political causes of the Left parties and the center-Left, such as “the urgent need to recover quality jobs, particularly in the case of women, by firmly supporting small and medium-sized enterprises, as well as promoting growth and advancing a process of sustainable economic recovery and adapting to the climate crisis.” But an even more relevant aspect is the harmony with the majority sentiment of Chileans, who between the protests of the estallido and the pandemic have asked for greater social rights, more presence of the state and the overcoming of inequalities, despite the economic growth indices recorded in the last years.
The unexpected success of these measures—which was politically planned by Boric—breaks the traditional schematic of the two big blocs of Chilean politics (center-Right and center-Left), both for training cultural heritage of the new president, both because it is the symbol of the generation that grew up “sin medio” (“without fear”) and which challenged the center-Left governments that led the incipient democratic transition between 1990 and 2010. There is no doubt that the triumph of Boric, representative of the most progressive Left, opens the doors of La Moneda to a very young generation, formed in the social demands of the 2011 and 2019 uprisings, and gives new vigor to the prospects of relaunching the Latin American Left of the region, as seen in Argentina and Brazil, which also face delicate presidential elections in the coming year.
The Challenges for the New Chile
From now on, the new president has a difficult task, entrusted to him by millions of Chileans, which is to give adequate answers to the demands and hopes of those sections of the population who for many years have suffered the consequences of repeated ultraliberal policies that have polarized the social conflict and structured a strongly unequal society. One must consider that Chilean education, both secondary and university, remains today among the most expensive in Latin America, acting as a powerful catalyst of existing inequalities instead of promoting social mobility. In fact, only 11% of students from the poorest sectors of the population manage to obtain a university degree, compared to 84% of the wealthiest students.
The problem continues. The latest report drawn up by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in 2020 showed that, among the countries with the highest development rate, Chile has the highest income inequality, where 1% of the population holds the 26.5% of the wealth and the poorest 50% only 2%. This is the result of a regressive tax regime, according to which everyone pays low taxes, without any distinction between 1% and the rest, and the state renounces its “balancing” role as guarantor of the social pact.
The other challenge awaiting Boric is the new constitutional charter. In fact, the constituent process is underway in the country and will end in the spring with the presentation of the new Constitution which overcomes and repeals the plan of 1980 which – paradoxically – still governs the Chilean political-institutional system. Consider that on March 11, 1990, the day of the official inauguration of Patricio Aylwin, the first democratically-elected President of the Republic, General Pinochet sat next to the newly elected president, and it was Pinochet himself who gave Aylwin the insignia of republican power.
Ultimately, the Constitutional Convention, which has the task of drafting the new constitutional charter, has clarified what its founding principles will be: the primacy of human rights, the prohibition of discrimination, gender equality, multiculturalism, multilingualism, and participation of indigenous peoples. The Pinochets era has its days numbered.