When 36-year-old Gabriel Boric was sworn in on Friday as the youngest president in Chilean history he immediately faced the need to resolve what is paradoxically the oldest problem this Andean nation has been enduring since before its independence in 1810.
Back in 1796, José Cos de Iriberri, a Chilean merchant, praised “the opulence and richness” of the land, going on to lament: “Who would think that in the midst of such abundance there would be such a scant population groaning under the heavy yoke of poverty, misery and vice.”
Of course, the ghost of Iriberri (who inhabited a Spanish province of less than a million souls), would not recognize contemporary Chile, a nation of 20 million people, groaning, rather, under the yoke of typical 21st-century troubles. And yet he might observe that inequality, injustice and corruption continue to haunt his native land. Now, though, there is a chance that this could change.
Boric was elected because he embodied a vast movement of citizens who took to the streets in October 2019 demanding a new political system, a different set of economic priorities and, above all, dignity for the underprivileged: a series of drastic measures that, if enacted, could soon make Iriberri’s melancholy statement obsolete.
The success of Boric’s radical agenda will depend on several factors.
Foremost, in a country racked by the pandemic and social unrest, he will need to increase taxes on the super-rich and major corporations – especially in the mining sector – to finance indispensable reforms in health, education and pension plans, a higher minimum wage and aggressive ecological policies, as well as the empowerment of women and regional governance.
To receive this revenue Boric’s administration will have to negotiate with a Congress where his coalition is in a minority. Moderating some of the more ambitious goals might lead to some agreements but could also disappoint – and vocally mobilize – many of his agitated followers: they voted for a leader who vowed to bury neoliberalism and its discontents. At any rate, whatever solution is reached will take many months of legislation and compromises, always under pressure from potential protestors.
A second series of circumstances will require immediate attention. A migration crisis in the far north of the country, overrun with undocumented workers from all over Latin America, has created a backlash of anti-migrant sentiment that has led to blockages by truckers. If repeated, these could paralyse significant areas of the economy, and Boric’s own stance of welcoming his Latin American brothers and sisters might soon be put to the test.
In the south of the country, the exigencies of long-neglected and despised indigenous groups have generated a fertile terrain for violence. The new president is determined to reject his right-wing predecessor’s embrace of militarization and open a peaceful dialogue with all parties, but events on the ground may not give him much breathing space.
A similar dilemma awaits him as his government copes with rising crime and narcotrafficking, while simultaneously trying to retrain a recalcitrant police force that has systematically brutalized the young and the poor.
The major concern of the incoming administration, however, is that it will take over the reins of government at the very moment when a constitutional convention – created to channel the demands of militant activists – is writing a new ‘Magna Carta’ to replace the fraudulent one pushed through by dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1980, which blocked the very reforms that Boric now wants to institute.
Most of the 154 delegates to the convention share Boric’s convictions – ecological, feminist, egalitarian, profoundly participatory, with great respect for indigenous beliefs; only 37 are conservatives. However, there are signs of tension between a government that has to deal with the everyday complications of everyday people and reach agreements with adversaries, and a convention that is dreaming of a land entirely free of exploitation, where nature reigns supreme and multiculturalism is triumphant.
The one thing that Boric cannot afford is that voters refuse to approve the new constitution in the referendum that will vote on it in September. That’s an unlikely possibility for now, but with powerful reactionary forces rampaging against the convention, it could leave the new government tied to old laws that have obstructed significant challenges to the status quo in the past.
Despite all these traps and dilemmas, I am optimistic about the future.
I am delighted to report that I have not met even one of the members of Boric’s ministers
Thirty-two years ago, on 11 March 1990, I was an official guest at the inauguration of President Patricio Aylwin, who was taking over from Augusto Pinochet after 17 years of terror. At that ceremony, I knew everybody in Aylwin’s cabinet personally, as well the heads of the senate and the chamber of deputies.
I am delighted to report that I have not met even one of the members of Boric’s ministers, more than half of whom are female – though I do know some of their parents and grandparents. This is resounding and wonderful proof of a true changing of the guard. The time seems ripe for this cohort of talented millennials – starting with the charismatic, tattooed, tieless Boric himself – to finally attack the long-standing predicament of our unfortunate homeland.
It is not merely that they come to power with the backing of a fired-up citizenry that is ready to rebel again if its mandates are not answered: these young politicians form part of the resurgence of a new Left across Latin America, with possible victories in Brazil and Colombia later this year that would confirm this tendency.
Despite the global crisis created by the invasion of Ukraine, Boric faces a favorable international panorama, without the kind of hostility – not to mention blatant interventionism – from the US that has doomed previous efforts at radical makeovers.
Boric represents, moreover, a welcome libertarian streak on the Left, opposing authoritarianism in whatever guise: he has criticized Cuba’s repression of dissidents and denounced pseudo-Sandinista Daniel Ortega as a dictator. In this he breaks with a number of Latin America’s more orthodox revolutionaries, including some of his own Communist allies in Chile. It matters to understand that the foundational experience of Boric’s generation was forged, not in the struggle against a dictatorship, but in opposition to democratic governments, demanding that they live up to the promise of democracy and serve the needs of the majority of its citizens rather than a small, powerful, privileged elite.
A lot rides on Boric’s ability to advance towards radical changes and environmental justice through peaceful means. The world – especially the young – needs an inspiring, foundational model that offers hope in democracy at a time when we are being bombarded by a relentless cascade of despairing news.
Many, here and abroad, will be watching as Gabriel Boric opens a new era in Chile’s history.
I like to imagine that, wishing him well, along with so many among the living, are also generations of the dead who came before and were unable to solve the perennial misdevelopment that still haunts us. Perhaps the ghost of José Cos de Iriberri, wherever he may be, is smiling as he muses that, maybe this time, after more than 200 years, his compatriots will get it right; maybe he will finally be able to rest in peace because his country has the government it deserves.
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