We should discuss the remarkable election of Gabriel Boric to the presidency of Chile and what a direct rejection of neoliberalism that really is. Moreover, Boric was a grassroots activist. The last time the Chilean people elected an activist to the presidency was Salvador Allende. The Pinochet regime was eventually defeated, but it also led to decades of a relatively apolitical populace in the aftermath; even if they might sometimes elect liberals, Chile lacked the social protest that rocked the rest of Latin America and that it was once known for. That seems to have changed. Marcelo Casals in Dissent:
In October 2019, the old Chile unexpectedly broke apart. An increase in the metro fare in Santiago sparked weeks of protests, led by high school students who called for riders to jump the turnstiles. As the protests escalated, the right-wing government of businessman Sebastián Piñera responded with disproportionate police force. Then, on October 18, in what would prove to be a fatal error, the government ordered the closure of all stations, leaving millions stranded in the streets. Within hours, the protests became massive. When night fell, barricades were erected in poor and middle-class neighborhoods. By the next morning, various metro stations on the outskirts of the capital were in flames. It was the violent beginning of what would soon be called the “Estallido Social”—the “Social Outburst”—or the “Chilean uprising” in English.
The months of protest that followed prompted a crisis that had been brewing since the beginning of the twenty-first century. The order in jeopardy was neoliberal Chile, designed during the long counterrevolutionary military dictatorship initiated in 1973 and continued with some reforms after the negotiated transition to democracy in 1990. The most tangible symbol of that era is the constitution, ratified by the Pinochet dictatorship’s fraudulent plebiscite in 1980. The document consolidated a mix of limited democracy and market economy, oriented around the interests of big business. It devolved social rights previously guaranteed by the state to the market, and at the same time weakened labor and union rights, undercutting the power of workers to organize. It is no coincidence, then, that the recent uprising coalesced around the demand for a new constitution. Less than a month after the outbreak of the protests, the government agreed to call a plebiscite on whether the constitution should be replaced. An overwhelming majority approved the measure in October 2020, and, in May 2021, Chileans went back to the polls to elect a Constitutional Convention. The results were surprising. The right won less than a third of the seats (something unthinkable just a few years before), losing its traditional veto power, while independent and left candidates made significant gains. While some alliances have shifted slightly in recent months, there still is a solid majority bloc identified with the popular demands articulated during the Estallido. Given the anti-neoliberal tenor of the protests, and the December victory of leftist Gabriel Boric in the presidential elections, the constitutional process presents an excellent opportunity for the Chilean left to shape a new social pact.
Obviously, read the whole thing. Let’s also excerpt the end:
Beyond the parties, there is also the risk that certain aspects of the progressive platform could end up inspiring more division than unity. The political theorist Nancy Fraser has written about the difference between a “politics of recognition” and a “politics of redistribution.” The former, which is widely supported by younger generations, values diversity and difference. These aspirations come from the left, of course, but they shouldn’t be the only goals; without an accompanying politics of redistribution—which aims to improve social and material conditions and diminish the power of big business—the politics of recognition can prove alienating to some voters. To that end, the left bloc in the convention should emphasize changes to the constitution to establish the right to unionize, the right to strike, and other legislation that would directly impact the lives of millions of workers.
The process of change in Chile is connected to a broader political shift across Latin America, which has been expressed in different ways in each country—from the Colombian uprising to the election of Pedro Castillo in Peru and Xiomara Castro in Honduras. There are signs of a global restructuring in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, characterized by the desire for greater control of capital flows and an awareness of the need to reduce the extreme concentration of wealth and to take climate change more seriously. If the world does enter into a post-neoliberal phase—by no means a certainty—Chile may serve as a guide and a laboratory, just as it was in the second half of the 1970s when it became the pioneer in radical neoliberal economic reform. Today the Chilean left has the opportunity to help build a new order that may shape the social, economic, and political structures of the country for years to come, and it may also have important regional and global reverberations. Replacing the constitution is not the same thing as a revolution, or an immediate change in the relations of power. But it represents the definitive overcoming of the long military dictatorship and its neoliberal legacies, and a radical improvement in the opportunity to develop a robust progressive agenda. It is a moment to advance toward the horizon that a good portion of the Chilean left has always sought: democratic socialism.
At the very least, he’s probably the only person ever elected to the highest office of a land who gives interviews in Nirvana t-shirts.