The President of the Republic, Gabriel Boric, participates in a cultural act with the La Pintana commune. Photo: Marcelo Segura/Gobierno de Chile.

Boric kicks off a new phase for the left in Latin American politics

Former student leader and feminist, the new Chilean president is the first millennial to rule a country in South America.

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Last Friday, March 11, in Valparaíso, the city where the seat of the Legislative Power of Chile is located, the first millennial president of South America, Gabriel Boric, received the presidential sash from billionaire Sebastián Piñera and, soon after, la piocha de O’Higgins, a heavy enameled metal star that hangs from the sash and is symbolic of the power of office. The ex-deputy who, exactly one year ago, was not even among the leading presidential candidates in the country enters the scene, and the president with the greatest unpopularity in Chilean democratic history leaves.

Boric also announced a cabinet with unique characteristics in Latin America, as it has a majority of female ministers (58%). Among them, the first woman to occupy the Ministry of Interior and Public Security, the doctor Izkia Siches. The Defense Minister is Maya Fernández Allende, granddaughter of the late President Salvador Allende, who had to commit suicide to avoid being arrested by General Augusto Pinochet’s troops in September 1973. Boric‘s office will also be the first in the region to count with two openly homosexual ministers.

Official photo of Boric’s cabinet, with its ministers and undersecretaries. Female presence draws attention when compared to other Latin American governments. Photo: Sebastián Rodríguez/Gobierno de Chile.

Moreover, Boric declared that he would support any bill for the legalization of abortion in the country (last year, a bill with this purpose was overturned in Congress).

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In practice, it is the first progressive and diverse government in the region, representing a new left. In general terms, Boric is very different from the old Latin American left, more conservative, and represented by names like Pedro Castillo (Peru), Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua), Nicolás Maduro (Venezuela), and Andres Manuel López Obrador (Mexico). Boric also has no religious allies or fondness for threadbare conspiracy theories (unlike the aforementioned).

The new Chilean president calls himself a defender of the secular state, something that in the region has only happened in Uruguay so far (although in Uruguay, the secular state is defended by both the center-left and the center-right).

Boric said in his inaugural speech that he would defend human rights, regardless of the countries’ governments – a reference to the recent criticism he made of Russian President Vladimir Putin over the invasion of Ukraine, in a position far from the neutrality of most of the region’s rulers. Boric had also previously criticized Ortega and Maduro, who were not invited to the ceremony, as well as Cuban Miguel Díaz-Canel and Maduro’s opponent Juan Guaidó.

For the inauguration, Boric invited the Colombian Gustavo Petro (presidential candidate from the left), Brazil’s former president Dilma Rousseff, dissident Sandinistas from Nicaragua (Ortega’s opponents), among others.

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Pokémon and Hipster Beard: Boric’s Millennial Side

Boric is a millennial, as are many of his ministers (and his entire inner circle of advisers). They all make speeches at public events, but their primary support base is on social media. They were babies when the Berlin Wall came down, and they grew up after the Cold War. That’s why they also have different rhetoric. Their beards (when they wear them) are not revolutionary but hipster.

They defend the conquest of power through the ballot box and not through the armed forces. In the case of Chile, there is a precedent for this view: Allende came to power through the vote in 1970 and the so-called “Chilean way to socialism” and was the first president of this political spectrum elected in Latin America.

Cosmopolitan and ecologist (this is a priority for him, not a secondary topic), Boric has already shown his musical fervor for American pop singer Taylor Swift and his appreciation for the Pokemon cartoon and video game (especially Squirtle, the first generation water-type pokemon).

He is also the first tattooed president in Latin American history (at least, the first to have admitted it, with tattoos in visible places).

And he lives with a feminist, Irina Karamanos, who has already made it clear that she will not be the first lady, as she considers the post too archaic. Karamanos says that no one should have a position because of marriage or kinship with a president.

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What to expect from the streets and Parliament in Boric’s term

From Valparaíso, Boric went to Santiago, where he gave a speech to thousands of people jostling around the government headquarters, the Palace of La Moneda. The crowd, however, does not reflect the electoral process.

Boric came to power with a tiny popular base (the smallest since the return of democracy). In the first round, his rival, José Antonio Kast, won 27.9% of the voters who actually went to vote. Boric was left with 25.8%.

Both candidates reached the second round supported by a small part of the population, as more than half of the people with the right to vote did not come to the polls. At the end of the day, Kast won 13% of the total electorate, and Boric, 12%.

In the second round, Boric won thanks to the anti-Kast votes, obtaining 55.8% of the votes of Chileans who went to vote, that is, 4.6 million votes. In practice, however, this equates to 30.6% voters.

Piñera and former president Michelle Bachelet were also elected with low votes, though not as low in the first round as Boric. And the two of them had trouble getting the support of the streets.

For Boric, however, the challenge is greater because he also starts his government without a majority in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate.

Boric Apruebo Diginidad‘s coalition has 37 of the 155 seats in the Chamber. With the support of other center-left and center parties, gathered in the Nuevo Pacto Social coalition (which brings together the remnants of the old Concertación) and with which he has been making agreements, he manages to reach 74 votes. To have a majority, though, Boric would need 78 seats.

Therefore, he will have to negotiate with two parties with which there are occasional moments of harmony, Dignidad Ahora and the Partido Ecologista Verde, which together have five seats.

Boric’s coalition has only five seats in the Senate, equivalent to 10% of the total. With Nuevo Pacto Social it has 18 seats, equal to 36% of the total. Although the opposition parties are the majority in the Senate, they are fragmented. That is, no group has a single majority of the upper house.

Knowing this, Boric said that the government and opposition would need to work together in his inaugural address.

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Inequality, indigenous peoples and the new Constitution are only some of Boric’s challenges

In a nod to sectors that ask for a more significant presence of the Police in the streets, the new president said it is necessary to fight crime but stressed that it is largely caused by social inequality. Therefore, he emphasized that it is essential to better distribute the country’s wealth to avoid the disparity that generates the social crisis.

Another demand, especially from the right and extreme right sectors, which has a strong appeal among the population of Northern Chile, is the immigration issue. An average of 500 immigrants arrive in the country through the desert in the north from Venezuela every day. They use about 160 existing trails along the border to do that.

During the election campaign, in a similar move to Donald Trump and his proposition of having a wall on the border between Mexico and the U.S, Kast even proposed a massive gap on the border to contain this movement.

The numbers, however, contradict the paranoia of anti-immigrant groups. 1.4 million migrants live in Chile, 7% of the country’s population. They represent, however, only 2.3% of people involved in crimes. Nevertheless, Northern Chile has been a place of xenophobia in recent months, with attacks on Venezuelan migrant families. In February, UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, criticized the discrimination and violence against these people who left in an exodus from the regime of Nicolás Maduro.

In his speech, Boric also highlighted that he would seek solutions to the country’s indigenous conflict in the South. Indigenous peoples constitute 10% of the inhabitants of Chile.

In Southern Chile, indigenous people, especially the largest group, the Mapuche, have been protesting for two decades, demanding greater autonomy and respect for their culture and customs. In addition, they require the retrieval of land. During Bachelet and Piñera governments, the Mapuche acted violently to put pressure on the authorities.

Last year, in increasing conflict, Piñera sent thousands of soldiers to the South, which caused further tension.

Boric will also have to show predictability to attract international investors again, who were skittish with the social protests of 2019 and 2020 (and who are still nervous about the direction of the Constituent Assembly, as several members of the Assembly intend to limit the activities of foreign companies in some areas, such as water distribution, a sensitive issue in Chile, especially in recent years of intense drought).

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In addition, he will have to meet the needs of the masses that actively participated in the 2019 and 2020 demonstrations. The list of demands is extensive and include reform of the social security system (with an eventual re-nationalization of the system or the creation of a mixed pension); lowering the cost of education (something that Boric fought for when he was a student leader a decade ago); less repressive Police power (the institution has been the protagonist of several human rights violations in recent years); and the abortion legalization. And, on top of all that, a very active gender policy.

But, above all, Boric will have to reactivate the economy, shaken by the demonstrations and the pandemic, reconciling proposals for a tax reform that seeks to relieve the lower class and increase the burden of taxes for large Chilean companies. All this, pushed by inflation, accumulated a high of 7.8% in the last 12 months, a rate significantly higher than the 4% ceiling calculated by the Central Bank.

At the same time, Boric will also have to deal with the internal frustration of his coalition. The Partido Comunista (Communist Party) has greater weight in the group, but it did not obtain many positions in the government of Boric, who is from the Convergencia Social, nor did it appreciate the criticism fired by the president against Bolivarian countries. The Chilean PC party has a strong structure and organizational capacity. If they decide to protest against Boric, they can do so blatantly.

The Constituent Assembly began its work in the middle of last year. It is working on the content of the new Chilean Constitution, which will replace that of dictator Pinochet, imposed in 1980 and still in force, although it has undergone several reforms.

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The constituent has nine months of work, a period that can be extended by three additional months – which means that it has to end in July of this year.

Each article in the text of the new Constitution must be approved by two-thirds of the constituents. Subsequently, it will undergo a referendum to see if it is accepted or not. If approved, Boric will have to govern under a new Magna Carta that significantly reduces the power of the Executive and increases that of the Legislative. Boric has already said that he expects this scenario to minimize the current ‘hyper-presidentialism’ in Chile and that he agrees with it.

A survey by the Universidad del Desarollo indicated that 53% of respondents (asked about the current status of the Constituent Assembly and the points debated so far) said they would vote in favor of approving the new Magna Carta, while 47% responded that they would not.

Translated by Fabiane Ziolla Menezes