By Aditi Motani
Gabriel Boric won Chile’s presidential elections in December 2021 and this article will look at what his win means for Chile and Latin America as a whole in terms of economic reforms. Gabriel’s win can be seen as a break in the trend of authoritarian regimes in the region, which would usher in a new era of socialist reforms that will transform Chile and Latin America’s political landscape.
On 11th March 2022, Gabriel Boric, 35, will be sworn in as the youngest ever president in the history of Chile after winning the Presidential elections. He won with 56 percent of the vote, which is the largest total in the country’s history. He won the elections against his far-right opponent José Antonio Kast. After the election results became public, Gabriel celebrated this moment by stating “I am going to be the president of all Chileans.” In the brief televised appearance with Pinera, Boric said, “I am going to do my best to get on top of this tremendous challenge.” Additionally, he also stated that people voting for him is in furtherance of their “commitment to democracy”.
He initially became a prominent figure in the public sphere 10 years ago as a shaggy-haired student spearheading the protests for free quality public education. Most of his agendas are socialist in its approach, which is a response to existing Chilean politics known for its sheer inequality and dictatorship. For years Latin America has been characterized by its right-wing leaders or authoritarian regimes and Gabriel Boric’s plans on undoing that. Although his win can be seen as a unidimensional incident in Latin America, I go on to argue that his win will have multiple repercussions for Latin America. This article will look at how his socialist approach in politics is in stark contrast to Latin America’s political history, as fighting for the downtrodden will be his primary agenda. His win will transform the political landscape of Latin America leading it towards a positive shift.
Analyzing the History of Latin American Politics
The words of the Venezuelan liberator, Simón Bolívar, provide us with an accurate picture of the political landscape of Latin America so far. Even though it was written more than 200 years ago, it still stands toe to toe with today’s reality. He wrote, “I fear that democracies, far from rescuing us, will be our ruin.” It’s representative of Latin America being ruled by a series of colonizers, despots, exploiters, and leaders, who in the name of establishing a democracy did nothing but replaced the existing exploitative system with a new name. This is the view of most Latin Americans as more than half of all Latin American nations are against democracy. It is not surprising that people feel this way given the history of the region where democracy has faced obstacles from the start. Post 19th century, when countries in the region emerged from their independence movements after being colonized by Spaniards for over 300 years, one dictator after the other ruled the region. Even though it was the Indians and blacks who fought all independence movements, post-victory, they all were sidelined, as the rich Creoles (whites of Spanish ancestry) seized both social and economic power.
Looking at Peru, from 1824 to 1844, in its first 20 years as a liberated republic, it had 20 presidents. Bolivia saw three in the course of two days. Argentina had more than a dozen leaders in its first decade. By the late 1970s, 17 out of 20 Latin American nations were ruled by dictators. However, twenty years later, a contrasting scene came to light, as 18 countries replaced the iron fist with democracies following the domino effect. By the end of the 1980s, democratic elections had rocked Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Peru. Eventually, Panama, El Salvador, and Guatemala followed too. On the face of it, it seems like a favorable shift for the region as most countries adopted the democratic form of governance. However, democracy does not always create favorable conditions for the people. Latin American democracy subsequently transformed itself into a scene where democratically elected representatives misused the power to create their own version of a totalitarian State. They expanded the military’s role as part of their governance, suspended constitutions, dodged persecution, blocked checks in the balance of power, and reproduced the authoritarian regimes.
Democratically elected presidents such as Evo Morales made the case for it. Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president was a poor coca leaf farmer who gave Bolivia hope and a measure of equality but later turned out to be no different when he got rich and rabidly authoritarian too. The series of violence and totalitarianism in functioning democracies continues with Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro.Further, authoritarianism in Venezuela continues as Maduro’s government has been blamed for shutting down investigations for bribes by the Brazilian corporate giant Odebrecht. This pattern of authoritarianism was exemplified by the 2018 report by the World Economic Forum which listed Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Honduras as among the countries least governed by the rule of law.
Politics in Chile specifically has been all about corruption, violence, and suppression of opponents. Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year-long military dictatorship in Chile between 1973 and 1990 is prime example of this. Chile’s military government under Augusto Pinochet’s consisted of the heads of the three armed forces, known as the Junta. Violence and human rights violations under Pinochet’s regime were the status quo. The first act that the Junta took was to ban all left-leaning political parties.
After years of dictatorial regimes, Boric’s win can be seen as a break in the general trend of authoritarian regimes across Latin America. Boric’s focus on issues like LGBTQ rights and the legalization of abortion (which is outlawed with the exception of a few specific cases) sets him apart from other traditional left-wing leaders in the region, most of whom embraced social conservatism. He is known for his pragmatism and willingness to distance himself from Latin America’s authoritarian leaders on the left, such as Nicaragua’s dictator, President Daniel Ortega. Furthermore, Boric is a staunch supporter of replacing the country’s dictatorship-era constitution instituted by Pinochet. Moreover, on numerous occasions, he has also spoken of strengthening the caregiving system that would relieve the burden on women, who are responsible for tending to children, older relatives, and others. Lastly, he has vowed to restore territory to Indigenous communities that have been ignored post-independence movements. His win in the elections is a good sign and as it is not only going to be favorable for the nation but the whole region as well.
Gabriel Boric reviving the Politics of Inequality and Redistribution
The current dire economic situation post the pandemic played a major role in making Chile’s mass resonate with Boric’s agenda. The pandemic has aggravated social and economic inequality, widening the gaps between the haves and the have nots. Several people have been pushed to the brink of severe poverty with unemployment rates soaring in the Chilean economy. Therefore, his politics has brought back the culture of politicization of inequality. This is in consonance with a shift away from the politics of market-based structural adjustment and towards a political landscape in which the social problems of poverty and inequality play a prominent role. His agenda is based on socialist reforms such as instituting a more inclusive public healthcare system, absolving student debts, and introducing a progressive taxation system that taxes the ultra-wealthy. Additionally, he is pushing for a complete revision of the earlier pension system which was one of the major demands of the people protesting in 2019. Most of the proposals of reform are aimed at undoing the system introduced by Pinochet’s dictatorial regime.
Boric’s style of politics is a form of re-politicization of inequality and distribution. The backdrop of this re-politicization is the shift to market liberalism in the 1980s and 1990s in Latin America. The market reforms in the 1980s were rigorously adopted post the 1980 debt crisis which is often referred to as the “lost decade” for the region. Governments across the region cut back their already limited redistributive measures, introduced before the 1980s, which were viewed as wasteful and undermining market efficiency by market reformers. Governments across the region started pursuing the political-economic ideology of market liberalism. In pursuance of market efficiency, governments slashed tariffs, privatized state-owned industries and public utilities, lifted price controls and subsidies, and deregulated labor, capital, and foreign exchange markets. These are all steps that led to the widening of the inequality gaps. Pinochet’s military regime too had reduced Government spending, privatized state services, and removed restrictions on foreign investment.
This shift towards market liberalism and market efficiency resulted in crippling inequality. It was the same reason why Chile made global headlines in 2019 when massive protests shook the country. The protests and political upheaval was a fight against wealth inequality which was prompted by an increase in metro prices but later turned into a fight against systemic inequality in Chile. The people were against increasing cost of living, low wages, low pensions, a lack of education rights, a poor public health system, and frustration among the people was already ongoing which was only aggravated by the pandemic. Such a wide gap in inequality and the people not having access to basic healthcare was a conducive environment for Boric’s ideology to resonate with people as his agenda is entirely based on undoing capitalist reforms of the 1980s and instituting socialist reforms. People’s sentiment and dissatisfaction was reflected in the 2021 Presidential election, as Gabriel Boric won by 56% of the vote. Therefore, his win can be seen as a break in the trend of capitalist wins which will most likely have an impact on the politics of the region as well and is something that we need to look out for.
Aditi Motani is a 2nd-year law student studying at Jindal Global Law School in Sonepat. Her primary research interest lies in constitutional law, competition law, arbitration law, and global politics.
Image credits – Al Jazeera