The Two Passions of Gabriel Boric

Ever since Chile recovered its democracy in 1990, after 17 years of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship, each incoming president has addressed the magnates of the private sector to tell them of the new administration’s plans. There was much speculation about what Gabriel Boric, elected president in December 2021 on a furiously anti-neoliberal platform, would speak about. Would this tattooed firebrand, now 37, who had made a name for himself as the leader of the student movement and then as a troublemaker in Chile’s congress, even turn up?

Boric attended that meeting in January 2022, but instead of declarations of policy or potential legislation, he started his speech with a poem by Enrique Lihn (1929-1988) about the Cemetery of Punta Arenas, in Boric’s hometown at the southernmost tip of Patagonia: “Not even death could make equal these men / who give their names to different gravestones / or shout those names to the sun-wind that erases them.” Boric was bringing out of the shadows the countless Chileans whose lives have been ransacked and neglected, reminding the cream of Chile’s ruling class that, as the poem says, “peace reigns here but a peace that struggles to break out,” haunted by the dead, “each being themselves forever, waiting, with tablecloths extended for their children and grandchildren.”

Less than a week later, addressing an annual forum that promotes scientific knowledge, he once again quoted a poet whose “irreverence against all forms of authoritarianism” he admires, Nicaraguan priest Ernesto Cardenal: “In one of his last poems written before dying,” Boric told the gathering, “he said that humanity needs a new mathematics, because one plus one is not two but one, and that salvation does not come from one but from all of us together.” During the next year, poetic allusions, mostly from unknown authors, kept popping up in speech after speech.

Poetry, of course, is something politicians resort to from time to time. Seamus Heaney’s words about the rare moments when “hope and history rhyme,” from “The Cure at Troy,” have been repeated often by Bill Clinton and, over and over, by Joe Biden. But Boric’s fascination with poetry and literature is not incidental or ancillary; it’s uniquely embedded in his marrow. As a child, little Gabriel would recite extensive stanzas his grandfather had read to him and, by adolescence, had joined a literary workshop, writing incandescent poems and editing a literary magazine. Literature’s call to a young Boric would have been further amplified by the fact that a number of Chile’s foremost poets (and Boric’s favorites) were born in far-flung provinces: Pablo Neruda in Temuco, Gabriela Mistral in the Valle del Elqui, Nicanor Parra in Chillán, Pablo de Rokha in Licantén and Gonzalo Rojas in Concepción, to name just a few who journeyed to Santiago to pursue their literary ambitions. Many decades later, Boric made the same pilgrimage.

In an alternative universe, it is conceivable that someone with Boric’s voracious reading habits and cultural aspirations would have created a mature oeuvre of literary work before entering the political arena, an example set by some of Latin America’s most accomplished authors. Argentina’s Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, while exiled in Santiago, wrote “Facundo,” a hybrid of essay and fiction considered an essential masterpiece of the 19th century, and went on to capably govern his country. José Martí, who died on the battlefield fighting for Cuban independence in 1895, produced an astonishing range of poems and essays that inspired both that struggle and Fidel Castro’s revolution decades later. Only after Venezuelan Rómulo Gallegos had written several major novels was he elected president of his country. Mario Vargas Llosa, whose works count as one of the high marks of Latin American contemporary fiction, was a candidate for the presidency of Peru. Sergio Ramírez, an exceptional novelist, served as vice president of Nicaragua during the first Sandinista government. (When Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua’s current dictator, revoked Ramírez’s citizenship, Boric offered him the Chilean nationality.)

There is no guarantee, of course, that Boric would have attained such noteworthy literary prominence. History, in any case, intervened. He became ardently involved in the mobilizations of university students between 2008 and 2011 protesting the inequality and injustices that were the legacy of the dictatorship, which the cautious center and left-wing parties had been unable to successfully redress. That militancy ultimately catapulted him to win the presidency with a 56 percent majority.

The dissident who entered the Presidential Palace in March 2022 was determined to carry out a utopian, iconoclastic political program, driven by recent ecological, feminist and LGBTQ+ insurgencies, as well as the historical struggles of workers and Indigenous peoples. But he was also influenced by his contentious, prophetic literary predilections; by subversive Chilean poets and narrators (Pedro Lemebel, German Carrasco, Diamela Eltit, Elicura Chihuailaf, Griselda Núñez, Roberto Bolaño, Alejandro Zambra), most of them from the fringes of society who were rebelling against a Chile “weighed down by a tombstone” (another line by Lihn that Boric once declaimed in the halls of Congress).

Very soon, however, the harsh reality of that traditional and conservative Chile began to weigh down on this rabble-rousing politician entranced by poets who impertinently criticize and mock the status quo. To get legislation passed in a fractious Congress where he did not hold a majority, Boric had to curb many of his revolutionary desires. Sixty-two percent of the electorate resoundingly rejected, in a referendum in September, a remarkably progressive constitution that expressed the insurrectionary and foundational yearnings of Boric and the movements that had swept him into power. That defeat shocked the young president. Might he be out of touch with the real country’s concerns and priorities, especially regarding the economy and how to offer security to citizens unnerved by a rise in everyday violence and crime?

The besieged Boric reacted to these and other setbacks by adopting a more moderate and modest agenda — even proposing policies he had condemned in the past — which could be interpreted as his bowing to a tenet enunciated by Machiavelli: It is better to break a promise if keeping it would be against one’s interests. But political expediency is arguably only a partial explanation for a shift to a less belligerent attitude. That change was also prepared by what Boric’s most cherished books had taught him.

His ability, for instance, to question his own preconceptions is prefigured by a phrase he has frequently insisted is the key to his moral philosophy: “Doubt must follow conviction like a shadow,” coined by Albert Camus, Boric’s most beloved non-Chilean writer. And his willingness to reach across generations to more experienced people, bringing into his coalition the very center-left figures that he had excoriated so virulently, is less surprising when considering his appreciation for writers (Jorge Teillier, Stella Díaz Varín, Armando Uribe, Jorge Edwards and Lihn himself) who wrote their most substantial work many years before Boric’s own birth. Nor does Boric only conceive of poetry as confrontational. It is also a field of beauty, where adversaries can mysteriously meet, anticipating his own desire to find common ground with opponents to his government.

This openness and tolerance learned from his relentless readings should not be confused, however, with the abandonment of beliefs and principles absorbed from those very books. But Boric’s preferred literature is marked by a fervent reverence for a threatened natural world, and a deep empathy for the pain of men, women and children perpetually sidelined by the powerful. If he betrayed the identity shaped and inhabited by “echoes and voices of nostalgia” (Neruda), he might feel orphaned, emotionally adrift.

So, are the two passions of Boric’s life — the love of a recalcitrant, sacrilegious literature and the dedication to a flexible, pragmatic form of service in politics — irreconcilable? Can he be true to both of them?

That will depend partly on what transpires in the confines of his mind, but mostly on how multitudes of Chileans define their communal future as they accompany their young president on his unprecedented journey. The outcome will be determined by the capacity of Boric’s compatriots to imagine, in ways that so many writers past and present have foretold in stubborn and wondrous words, a land no longer eternally weighed down by a tombstone, a land where the dead in the cemeteries can rest in peace and the living who visit them can abide in justice, where perhaps hope and history might, in effect, rhyme.

This column first appeared in The Washington Post.