Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

A promising new direction for Chile

By Harley Shaiken

Victory celebration

Chile experienced the political equivalent of an 9.5 earthquake after the polls closed at 6:00 PM on Sunday, December 19, 2021 in the final round of a presidential race many had felt too close to call.

Gabriel Boric, a charismatic 35 year old congressman and former student leader who hails from the left politically and from the far south of Chile geographically—-Punta Arenas on the Straits of Magellan--won a decisive victory over José Antonio Kast, an ultra-right populist and admirer of Trump. Boric received the most votes for president in Chilean history, amassing an almost 12 point margin over his opponent, with the highest turnout since voting became voluntary nine years earlier.

Victory celebration

This historic moment gets a bit ahead of our story. We had been invited by Gabriel Boric and Irina Karamanos, an anthropologist and his partner, to watch the returns with them on election eve. The results would prove defining for Chile but were also being closely watched throughout Latin America.

As we arrived at around 5 PM to the Hotel Fundador in downtown Santiago—the election night gathering place of the Boric campaign—invited guests inside the hotel--family, political leaders, key aides, and friends--were anxious for the polls to close and some were apprehensive about the outcome. It turns out the modest hotel was around the corner from the University of Chile where we met Boric a scant ten years earlier when he was a passionate and committed student leader.

Boric had been an inspired candidate. He was charismatic to be sure but he conveyed a core honesty and a deep empathy for the plight of ordinary Chileans. He connected with people from pensioners reduced to poverty in Latin America's strongest economy to university students at mediocre for-profit schools now saddled with debt though Chilean universities are among the top in the region. Chileans were told they were part of an "economic miracle" but many felt they were observing it from the outside rather than sharing its benefits from the inside.

The campaign took place against a backdrop of a social explosion that began two years earlier on October 19, 2019. A small increase in subway fares—30 pesos (4-cents)—ignited a firestorm of smoldering discontent over sharp inequality and a sense of exclusion. Millions of Chileans poured into the streets in Santiago and across the country from young workers to retirees, women and men, parents and those who were single. The demonstrations were overwhelmingly peaceful but a small minority resorted to arson and destruction. The turmoil caused a political meltdown that led to a plebiscite for a new Constitutional Convention—Boric was a strong supporter-that passed with 80 percent in favor.

In the wake of that social upheaval, Boric ran his presidential campaign on the politics of hope and social solidarity. He put out bold plans to stimulate sustainable economic growth and harness the country’s mineral resources for all Chileans. His goal is a broadly shared prosperity. He proposed to flatten inequality through higher taxes on the wealthy; high quality free education and universal health care, the latter funded by a tax on all workers; a Guaranteed Universal Pension after age 65, currently being considered in the congress. He has proposed expanded rights for the marginalized and put forward innovative plans to address climate change, which promise to spur growth across the Chilean economy.

The presidential race was widely characterized in the media as the extreme right facing off against the extreme left. A compelling narrative but one that was only half correct. Kast was certainly on the ultra-right but Boric ran as a social democrat. The Economist commented that his economic program was “radical” but admitted that he “seeks to turn Chile into something more like Germany than Venezuela, with European levels of tax and green investment, state companies, and industrial policy.”

One of the radical economic proposals in Boric’s original presidential platform, according to the Economist, was to “require companies to give half their board seats to workers.” While at first glance this may seem a bit radical, it has been the basis of “codetermination” in Germany since the late 1940s and laid the basis for that country's stellar economic and export success.

Nonetheless, the very prospect of Boric’s victory had caused the stock market and the peso to slide and billions of dollars to leave the country. These moves were both damaging and short-sighted. Boric promises to be a pragmatic and visionary president for all Chileans. His administration, despite possible ups and downs, will provide more social stability than Chile has seen in awhile. This stability is what the business community is looking for and what the Chilean people strongly desire. Both the market and the peso have begun to recover.

Consider Boric’s path-breaking proposals on climate change. The country already has more installed photovoltaic solar than the rest of Latin America combined--an impressive achievement--and the president-elect now proposes manufacturing solar panels for domestic needs and expanding renewable energy research and development in Chile. This R&D will build on strong universities and new graduates both at home and from Chile's impressive scholarship programs for advanced degrees abroad. Boric wants to create new industries, high-wage jobs, and export markets across Latin America and the world. These initiatives could unleash entrepreneurial energy throughout the economy and also benefit workers and communities across Chile.

As the campaign unfolded, Boric moderated key policies before the final round. He moved beyond his Approve Dignity coalition, which included Frente Amplio (Broad Front) and the Communists, and received enthusiastic unconditional support by the center left, which comprised Christian Democrats, the Socialists, and the Party for Democracy, among others. The strong support of two highly regarded former presidents, Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet, was invaluable.

In short, Boric wants a more dynamic economy and a more caring and dignified society. He feels these goals reinforce each other rather than being at cross purposes. He knows he will have some tough decisions to make concerning public security and addressing crime as well as the longstanding conflict in the Mapuche area. He will also address complex issues related to 1.5 million recent immigrants in the country (8 percent of the 2019 population) and future immigration policy.

He will be president while the Constitutional Convention completes its work and a plebiscite is held later in 2022. "Rarely does a country get a chance to lay out its ideals as a nation and write a new constitution for itself," the New York Times wrote in late December 2021, "After months of protests over social and environmental grievances, 155 Chileans have been elected to write a new constitution amid what they declared a "climate and ecological emergency."

None of what Boric faces will be easy. The president-elect lacks majorities in either house of congress and is well aware of the obstacles ahead. What he does have is a strong electoral mandate, an impressive team, and the demonstrated ability to truly inspire and communicate with people.

He particularly connected with the young, winning 70 percent of the votes of women and men under thirty, according to Decide Chile.Boric also carried a majority of all demographic age groups, particularly among women other than those over 70 and, in fact, didn’t do so very badly in this group either.

You could sense a generational political shift among the thousands in the streets the night of the election. Indicative of this shift, the woman who is president of the Constitutional Convention is 39 and the man who is vice president is 33. Both are medical doctors.

When we first met Boric a decade ago, he had just been elected head of the university student federation, then elected to congress in 2013 at the age of 27, and re-elected in 2017. Along the way he founded a new political party and was a key actor in founding Frente Amplio. We stayed in touch through all of this on visits to Chile.

Election Eve in Santiago, Chile

We invited him to Berkeley for four days at the Center for Latin American Studies in February 2020 as our last public event before the covid shutdown. The presidential race was not on his mind, which makes his remarks all the more relevant for insight into how he will govern.

He was original, reflective, analytically sharp, and refreshingly honest. He quoted Albert Camus, the French existentialist, to whom he credits his favorite saying “doubt must follow conviction as a permanent shadow.”

Boric emphasized his deep commitment to democratic values. “The problem,” he pointed out, “is that there is a deep distrust in institutions and a crisis about the idea of representation.” As a result, “compromising is perceived as treason, and even dialogue with those you disagree with is seen as a betrayal.” He finds these perspectives counterproductive and dangerous.

Less than a half hour after the polls closed we witnessed hundreds of thousands of people beginning to pour onto the Alameda, a legendary avenue that crosses the capital, in a jubilant celebration for Boric’s victory. On a warm summer night Chileans saw in him their hopes and dreams. A vast tension seemed to be released in the streets of the capital and across the country.

As people took to the streets, something else happened that speaks well of Chilean democracy. José Antonio Kast, not only called Boric as the trend became apparent but drove over to the Hotel Fundador to personally congratulate him on a “grand victory” and to pledge his cooperation for the good of Chile. The next day Boric was cordially invited by President Piñera to the Moneda (the Chilean White House) to congratulate him on his victory and to begin planning for the transition. To paraphrase Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, “Toto, we’re not in Washington, D.C. anymore.”

That night wasn’t quiet. Music, drums, guitars, car horns, singing, fireworks and barking dogs all contributed to an exuberant “symphony of the streets”. As we walked through Plaza Italia, the site of horrific battles between demonstrators and the police during the social upheaval in October 2019, we were now surrounded by a peaceful at times dancing crowd with few police in sight.

We were elated to have been in Chile to witness this historic moment but it clearly is resonating far beyond Chile. Aryeh Neier, the founding Director of Human Rights Watch and president emeritus of the Open Society Foundation, wrote us to say, “I am glad to learn that you were in one of the few places in the world where things have been going in a good direction.” And, the legendary artist Fernando Botero, communicated “Que bien el resultado de las elecciones en Chile! Gabriel Boric es una gran promesa…(How good the result of the elections in Chile! Boric is a great promise)” And, President Biden called Boric to congratulate him saying that Chile’s election is a “powerful example to the region and the world.”

A democratic Chile that combines economic growth, an unprecedented effort to address climate change, and a deep commitment to dignity for all could transform the country and inspire change with partners in Latin America, the United States, and around the globe.

Coauthors Beatriz Manz and Harley Shaiken are both professor emeritus at UC Berkeley. Both served as chairs of Berkeley’s Center for Latin American Studies.