Ever since my native Chile regained its democracy in 1990 after 17 years of a brutal dictatorship, I have been haunted by the fear that those dark times could return. No matter how often that dread was met with proof of how the Chilean people were distancing themselves from the terror of the past — repudiating the executions, the torture and the massive exile of dissidents under strongman Gen. Augusto Pinochet — I could not shake the sense that one day my country, besieged by crises, might condone a regression to authoritarianism and repression.
My fear lifted substantially two years ago, when the largest social justice protests in Chile’s history led to 80% of the electorate voting to replace Pinochet’s fraudulent 1980 constitution, which had been constraining indispensable reforms. The way the constitutional convention, in session since July, has been reconceiving a deeply democratic government seemed a sign that the perverse institutions and advocates of dictatorship were being permanently consigned to ashes and irrelevance.
I should not have been so optimistic.
Chile goes to the polls Sunday to elect a new president, with a potential runoff four weeks later between the top two candidates. The campaign has seen the alarming possibility that José Antonio Kast, an ultra-right-wing populist who considers Pinochet his hero, could become the country’s next president.
When Kast, the son of a Nazi officer who had served Hitler, launched his candidacy, I believed, along with most observers on the right and the left, that his campaign was doomed. His opposition to divorce, abortion and gay rights, as well as his window-dressing responses to global warming, contrasted with what most of the country appeared to be thinking. Kast had also crusaded to keep the old, autocratic constitution and supported pardoning some of Pinochet’s most egregious torturers, murderers and other agents, now serving long prison sentences for their human rights violations.
How is it, then, that this crypto-fascist could end up as Chile’s next president?
Kast has been tapping into the intense anxiety of what he calls Chile’s “silent majority” (shades of Nixon and Trump!), channeling and relentlessly stoking fears and anger about the country’s future and its identity.
Since 2014, more than a million immigrants (mostly from Haiti and Venezuela) have arrived in Chile (population, a bit over 19 million). Kast’s proposals to close Chile’s frontiers to “illegal immigrants” and build a trench to keep them out have been met with enthusiasm by nationalistic voters who blame these economic refugees for a rise in poverty and delinquency.
Crime is a related concern for families, associated with the fiery demonstrations that brought about the constitutional convention, as well as an upsurge in violence in the region where Indigenous communities are struggling for land and water rights stolen from them over centuries. Suddenly, a “law and order,” militaristic candidate turns out to be ominously attractive.
The pandemic has frayed Chile’s bonds of solidarity. Many citizens, weary of unrest and uncertainty, are eager to trust any demagogue promising a return to the “traditional values.”
There are other candidates running for president. Only one, Gabriel Boric, a tattooed and charismatic 35-year-old left-wing congressman, is expected to gain enough votes to trigger a runoff with Kast.
Boric is a follower of Salvador Allende, the democratically elected socialist president of Chile overthrown in the 1973 coup that put Pinochet in power. He embodies the colossal social movement that has demanded an inclusive republic in which the livelihood and dreams of the majority are not subjected to the interests of a privileged few, a new story about where the nation should be heading.
The forward-looking Boric is neck and neck in the polls with the reactionary Kast. In an election that, increasingly, favors security over innovation, the very trait that I find most appealing in Boric — his readiness to recognize mistakes, his openness to dialogue — has often made him seem inexperienced when compared with the reassuring fatherly figure of Kast, a traditional Catholic with nine children of his own.
I am enthusiastic about Boric’s program, one of the most socially advanced in the world today — feminist, ecologically sound, worker-oriented, devoted to Indigenous rights, firmly committed to democracy and participation — but I recognize that he will need enormous dexterity to placate his powerful Communist allies on the left while enlisting the progressive center-left parties that have steered Chile through most of its post-dictatorial years.
Confronted by a stark choice between the dreadful past and a still-to-be-charted future — and grappling with the discontents and challenges facing so many countries, including the United States — what will Chile decide?
I can only hope that my country of origin offers the world a lesson in how to conquer the phantoms of fear, finding the courage, when our hard-earned democracy is in peril, to build a better and more just social order, rather than retreat to the shadows of authoritarianism.
This column first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.