There are many reasons the resounding victory of Gabriel Boric, a millennial left-wing congressman, in Chile’s presidential elections will echo far beyond the borders of that Andean nation.
In times that have seen the alarming rise of authoritarianism worldwide, it is a cause for celebration that Chilean voters rejected not only Boric’s opponent, the ultraconservative faux-populist, José Antonio Kast—an admirer of the country’s former dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet—but also Kast’s anti-immigrant, traditionalist, anti-abortion, law-and-order message of fear and intolerance.
Just as significant globally is that my compatriots chose in Boric a leader who, at 35, will be the youngest president in Chilean history, someone who embodies the emergence of a new generation on our troubled planet. The causes he believes in are those youth everywhere have been increasingly fighting for across the globe: gender equity, the empowerment of women and indigenous peoples, an end to police brutality and neoliberal economic policies, a deepening of democracy and civil rights and, above all, urgent action on climate change.
But like militants elsewhere, Boric also faces massive obstacles in order to enact the crucial changes that, in the case of Chile, are necessary to ensure justice and dignity for the country’s neglected majority. Despite the ample margins of Boric’s win with 56 percent of the vote and the largest total in the country’s history, the road ahead will not be easy. After all, 44 percent of the electorate voted for someone as retrograde as Kast, who has, like autocrats in other nations (Trump, anyone?), sidelined and devoured the potentially liberal elements of traditional right-wing parties. And major reforms will need to be negotiated in a Congress where the radical coalition that supports the incoming president—along with allies on the center-left—barely possess a workable majority.
Boric also confronts a country ravaged by the pandemic and a roiling economic crisis—with entrenched economic and social actors unwilling to forego their privileges, who are more than ready to sabotage attempts to redistribute power and income. Pressured by his radical base to go faster, Boric will simultaneously have to deal with calls to go slower by moderate allies required to carry out an extremely bold agenda of structural changes. There are already ominous signs from members of Chile’s financial and industrial elite—and from many milquetoast pundits—that the future president should limit his ambitious goals.
Yet I remain cautiously optimistic.
Partly, this derives from the exceptional qualities of Chile’s next president. Boric was forged in the student protests of 10 years ago—and has kept faith with the tenets of that struggle, averting the temptation of being corrupted and domesticated by those in power. He has also learned the value of flexibility. It is encouraging to see him so open to dialogue, to note his willingness to recognize mistakes and proclaim himself as someone—as he said in his victory speech—who listens more than he talks. Never underestimate the capacity to prevail of a leader with genuine compassion for those who suffer, who counts on the unique gift of courage and generosity from his fellow humans.
Another factor in Boric’s favor is that a Constitutional Convention (which he was instrumental in creating) is, at this very moment, discussing a new Magna Carta to replace the fraudulent Chilean Constitution pushed through in 1980 by Pinochet and that has hamstrung reforms ever since. The unprecedented process of reimagining how the nation should be governed, of how it can fulfill the dream of becoming a truly inclusive society, is being carried out by delegates who represent the immense diversity of the Chilean people. The convention has parity of male and female representatives, is presided over by an indigenous woman, and is on its way to liberating Chile from the persistent legal and ideological shackles of Pinochet’s legacy. It has also taken pains to make its deliberations participatory and community-based—a practice that coincides with and enhances Boric’s own instincts and experiences.
Equally promising for Boric’s success is that his triumphant rise comes at an auspicious moment for the Latin American left. Argentina, Bolivia, and Perú, the three nations bordering Chile, are currently ruled, however uncertainly and precariously, by left-wing administrations. Farther afield, the election of a socialist woman as president of Honduras and the likelihood that the progressive Lula da Silva will defeat Joao Bolsonaro (a buddy, by the way, of Kast) are other signs of major shifts on the horizon. Right-wing governments in Ecuador and Colombia are in trouble, with the possibility that the former M-19 guerilla Gustavo Petro, one of the front-runners for the Colombian presidency in next year’s elections, could pull off a startling win. And Boric’s fierce defense of human rights wherever they are violated and his commitment to democratic norms and institutions—which have already led him to criticize the dictatorship of the pseudo-Sandinista Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and the travesties of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro—could assist in a needed renovation and rethinking of the left in Latin America, helping to avoid the mistakes of previous revolutionary governments.
Finally, though, my belief that those who voted overwhelmingly for Boric may be able to meet, along with him, so many different challenges, is rooted in my personal existence. When I arrived in Santiago as a 12-year-old boy in 1954, born in Buenos Aires and raised in New York, I was soon entranced by the beauty of the land and the valor and wisdom of its people. In the decades that followed, I found a home in the vast movement for social justice that Chileans had built since independence, a movement that culminated in the democratically elected government of socialist Salvador Allende. And after the bloody 1973 coup that terminated the Allende experiment, I was amazed and inspired by how the country I had made my own managed to resist the dictatorship with enormous sacrifices and then oust Pinochet by peaceful means, initiating a transition to democracy that, with all its imperfections, has now found a leader who can help the people complete their journey toward freedom and equality.
I have seen what the men and women of Chile can do when they are called to a noble cause. I can only pray that now, yet again, my country will be a shining example of liberation for a turbulent world that is crying out for some light in the midst of so much darkness.
This article first appeared in The Nation.