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Radical Democracy Is Resurgent in Latin America. How Will the US Respond?

Chile’s Boric administration will be tested with contending visions of left politics in the current historical moment.

Chile's president-elect Gabriel Boric makes a public speech in Santiago, Chile, on December 19, 2021.

Chile has become the global capital of resurgent opposition to neoliberalism and resistance to fascism, electing the world’s youngest president, Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old former student protest leader. Boric, a member of Chile’s congress since 2014 and law school graduate, will lead the country’s first left unity government since the bloody United States-backed military coup which overthrew democratically elected leader Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973 (the “other September 11”).

The left’s decisive victory in Chile, with about 55 percent of the vote, came amid a large turnout of women and youth. This included a 1-million vote margin over his far right opponent, José Antonio Kast, who positioned himself as an heir to the legacy of the Gen. Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. Boric’s mandate simultaneously embodies the hopes awakened by Chile’s national popular uprising in October and November 2019, and a rejection of Kast’s embrace of, and personal connections to, the Pinochet regime. These included his older brother’s strategic roles as head of the country’s central bank and labor minister. Kast waged a campaign characterized by racist, xenophobic and patriarchal appeals to the need to restore “national security” and “order,” and to defend “traditional family values” in the wake of the 2019 protests.

The result marks a historic shift which has widespread implications for the U.S., for the Latin American and Caribbean region, and globally. Similar hopes were awakened 50 years ago by President Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile, which was targeted by the U.S. during the Richard Nixon administration and specifically by Henry Kissinger, first as national security adviser and then as secretary of state, and eventually overthrown with U.S. encouragement.

Thousands of victims were killed, disappeared, tortured and exiled throughout 17 years of dictatorship under Pinochet, who turned Chile into a global model for the neoliberal orthodoxy associated with the disciples of Milton Friedman and the “Chicago Boys.” The so-called “Chilean Miracle” was closely aligned with the politics of President Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. This model was soon emulated regionally, with disastrous results, in countries such as Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico, and globally through the so-called “Washington Consensus” promoted by the U.S. through the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Many in Chile and Latin America are waiting to see how the U.S. will react to a Boric administration and a governing coalition that includes Chile’s Communist Party as a partner. As more people around the world view the U.S. and the European Union as threats to global democracy, social movements throughout Latin America and beyond are mobilizing to defend the democratic result of Chile’s elections, as they did during Pinochet’s dictatorship.

Boric’s victory reflects a new alignment of political forces in Chile which displaces the center-left and center-right blocs which have dominated the spectrum and alternated in power since Pinochet’s ouster in 1990. Boric’s “new left” leadership first emerged while he was a student activist within the context of national student protests in 2006, 2009 and 2011, which laid the foundation for the 2019 uprising. The massive 2019 protests led to a November 2019 civic pact which initiated Chile’s current constitutional reform process as well as the emergence of the broad left coalition that eventually backed his presidential candidacy.

Boric’s election also reflects an emergent regional trend, coinciding with Xiomara Castro’s November election in Honduras and Luis Arce’s October 2020 election in Bolivia, which in each case effectively reversed coups in 2009 and 2019, respectively, that sought to shift both countries back into closer alignment with the U.S. This left trend also includes the victory of Pedro Castillo in Peru.

The president-elect’s four-year term will coincide with Chile’s promulgation of a new constitution, intended to dismantle almost 50 years of authoritarian hegemony. The Boric presidency thus has a historic opportunity to complete Chile’s prolonged democratic transition and process of transitional justice.

The new leader pledged in his first address as president-elect that his approach would be focused explicitly on the promotion of “truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-repetition” as guiding threads for his administration’s policies. Boric also prioritized satisfaction of the demands of Chile’s powerful women’s and Indigenous movements as central driving forces in his agenda. This will likely include redefinition of Chile as a pluri-national and pluri-cultural state, as Bolivia did in its 2008 constitution, and new guarantees for reproductive rights and LGBT rights in a country where they have been traditionally restricted.

Boric’s campaign was notable for taking an eco-socialist approach to environmental issues. His election night speech included an explicit rejection of the controversial $2.5 billion Dominga iron, copper and gold mining project promoted by the Andes Iron company in the Atacama desert, 500 miles north of Santiago and near a conservation area that is home to 80 percent of the world’s Humboldt penguins. “Destroying the world is destroying ourselves. We do not want more ‘sacrifice zones.’ We do not want projects that destroy our country, that destroy communities, and we exemplify this in a case that has been symbolic: No to Dominga,” he said. Outgoing conservative Chilean President Sebastian Piñera recently had to fight off an impeachment process based on his family’s role as investors in the Dominga project, as revealed in the release of the “Pandora Papers” by the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism.

The new administration’s approach will be centered around an overall commitment to advancing human rights, and is specifically focused on the implementation of economic and social rights to lay the foundation for a dignified life for all Chileans, including rights to health, education and housing. The emphasis here is on reversing the impact of neoliberal policies which have deepened poverty and inequality and undermined the rights of pensioners. This approach is being combined with an emphasis on promoting a “care economy” centered around reinforced state public health guarantees in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Difficult tests lie ahead for the Boric presidency, as it navigates contending visions of left politics in Latin America in the current historical moment. Boric identifies with certain dimensions of the most progressive currents in European-style social democracy. This is reflected in his campaign’s emphasis on state guarantees of economic, social and cultural rights, and climate justice. But these characteristics are combined with the “bottom-up” politics that characterize Latin America’s most powerful social movements for human rights, grounded in the demands of the poor and other marginalized sectors. These are also shaped by feminist demands for equality and against sexual and gender violence; by Indigenous peoples for autonomy and self-determination and against extractivist mega-development policies and paradigms; and in defense of migrant rights. This is a more complex mix than is suggested by analyses that reduce Latin America’s left to polarized camps that are either “statist” or “anti-state” (or autonomist), and thus necessarily in conflict with each other. Boric’s trajectory and horizons suggest a much more fluid relationship between the state and social movements. But the question in practice will be the extent to which Boric’s administration is directly accountable to the social movements which made his victory possible.

He will face key tests as the constitutional reform process evolves, which is intended to culminate in a referendum on approval of a new text sometime after July 2022. It is likely that the new constitution will take historic steps in recognizing the rights of women, and for the first time, of Indigenous peoples, among other important reforms. Measures of this kind will generate pressures on Boric to reaffirm or retreat from his campaign platform. The elected assembly which is drafting the text — the first in the world of its kind to have gender parity — is significantly to the left of Chile’s congress, and of Boric’s second round campaign, which successfully contended for a decisive slice of a bloc of centrist voters.

But Boric’s mandate was also spurred by a significant increase in turnout that was concentrated among women and younger voters, and overall by those who supported the massive 2019 protests. The balance struck in governance and implementation between these sectors will shape the new governing coalition’s aspirations and their limits.

Global and national markets have already reacted negatively to Boric’s victory, which will accelerate pressures by global capital and its local allies to moderate his campaign pledges. Boric will have to navigate the increasingly intense regional and global rivalry between traditional U.S. hegemony and China’s ascent, as a Latin American country which has positioned itself as a key player in the Pacific Basin. China and other Asian countries are by far Chile’s most important trade partners (57.7 percent of exports in 2020), far outpacing North America (U.S. and Canada 15.2 percent), other Latin American countries (13.1 percent including Mexico) and the EU (12.2 percent).

Moreover, it is closer, deeply troubled U.S. allies such as Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia and Haiti that have much lower levels of democratic legitimacy and human rights compliance, compared to states that may become potentially more independent of U.S. domination, such as Chile and Peru. Honduras is a much more problematic case because of its greater vulnerability to more direct forms of U.S. intervention related to the drug war and longstanding processes of forced migration. The exercise of U.S. hegemony through sanctions tends to strengthen its targets rather than weaken them, and to harm the most vulnerable sectors in countries that have been singled out in this way. There is also extensive debate about the empirical evidence either way in terms of the impact of such measures on the supposed promotion of democracy.

This is further underlined by how U.S. sanctions against Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, which violate international law and are deeply rooted in Cold War assumptions and methods, have themselves undermined democratic options within those contexts. Potential center-left victories that are on the horizon in 2022 in Colombia and Brazil will provide additional tests for these overall trends, as the U.S. scrambles to respond. The Biden administration’s actual response to the left’s victory in Chile, and that of global and national capital, in practice, beyond the traditional rhetoric of welcoming messages, will be a crucial indicator.

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