By ALEX KOLE
Gabriel Boric secured an impressive electoral victory over his opponent, Jose Antonio Kast, winning 56% of the vote and an affirmation that the majority of Chileans oppose a return to the politics of the Pinochet era.
What remains to be seen is how forcefully Boric will push his progressive agenda in the face of a conservative Congress and many to his left who expect him to fight to advance the demands protesters raised during the mass protests of October 2019. Of course, a Boric administration will certainly face opposition from global capital. Reporting on the Boric win, The Wall Street Journal wrote that on Monday morning, Dec. 20, the “peso fell to a historic low and the country’s stock market tumbled.”
Much of Boric’s support centered on the Metropolitan Region, including the capital of Santiago, but surprisingly, Boric was able to secure a victory in Antofagasta, a region of the country that went for Franco Parisi, an independent candidate who came in third overall in the first round. Parisi, the so-called “economist of the people,” dumped his anti-establishment and populist politics and endorsed the arch-reactionary and neoliberal fundamentalist Kast for the second round, but his supporters apparently rejected his recommendation.
The politics of Gabriel Boric
In this run-off election, voters faced a choice between two candidates, who in some ways were starkly different, and in other ways regrettably similar. On the one hand, Gabriel Boric represents a new generation of politicians that has captured the attention and enthusiasm of many young Chileans, who see him as the embodiment of a social-democratic politics willing to address the demands of those involved in the 2019 protests. On the other hand, Boric’s campaign has revealed his already moderate reformism shifting rightward since the first round in order to appeal to middle-class voters fearful of what a leftist president might do once in office.
When Boric won the July primary, he promoted several policy positions that would both erode the remaining legislative relics of the Pinochet era and also appeal to demands of the 2019 protesters, although in a way that maintains the legitimacy of the Chilean state by making it more palatable to those that have consistently fought against it. Boric fits the mold of a social democrat, one who sees reforms to the system as a means to address the grievances of his base, students and their allies among the working class and poor, while also bolstering the legitimacy of the system by making it more ostensibly responsive to popular demands.
During his tenure in Congress, he advocated taxes on Chile’s big industry, chief among them mining, increasing government spending on social services, and replacing Chile’s private pension system with a publicly managed one. On the campaign trail, he has also spoken in support of forgiving student debt, increasing the minimum wage, expanding public health care, and mitigating the effects of climate change. His most controversial reform, for his opponents on the political right at least, is reform of the pension system, which was a keystone policy among Pinochet’s neoliberal reforms in the 1970s.
Since the pandemic hit Chile, resulting in mass layoffs, legislators have voted three times to allow Chileans to withdraw up to 10 percent of their pension, yet recently rejected a fourth round of withdrawals. Boric voted in favor of these measures. His votes have spooked Chile’s partisans of the neoliberal economic model, who say that such measures jeopardize the retirement system and undermine the “macro model” that Pinochet initiated. It remains to be seen how serious he will press for the reform of the pension system, which was at the center of his campaign.
He certainly has grown closer to the pro-business and reformist politicians formerly grouped in the Concertación (later the “New Majority”) coalition. And given the staunch opposition he faces from Chile’s far right, it is entirely within the realism of possibility that as president, irony will echo from the words he spoke to a crowd upon winning the primary in July, “If Chile was the cradle for neoliberalism, it will also be its grave.”
Boric and Chile’s student movement
According to a Time magazine article written at the time of the mass protests of October 2019, those that took to the streets in response to a four percent hike in subway fares are among a generation that is the product of one of the most unequal societies in Latin America. Chile’s income inequality is one of the highest in the OECD—behind only Brazil and South Africa—with six in 10 households unable to cover their monthly expenses. Chile’s working class experiences high rates of unemployment, especially among women and youth, and those with jobs are languishing in low-wage jobs that are diminished further by a rising cost of living. Many of the October protesters were young students from Chile’s underfunded public school system and universities.
Chile’s youth have a long and distinguished history of fighting against the educational reforms enacted by Pinochet, which largely privatized secondary and university education and consequently prevented the children of Chile’s poor and working class from obtaining the education the children of the elite received in private (or partially private) schools. Student-led demonstrations erupted in 2016 and 2017, at which time they also clashed, sometimes violently, with the police. Confrontation with the police during the 2019 demonstrations resulted in thousands being detained by a police force that has been accused of beatings, sexual assault, and the murder of five protesters. As Time reported, 305 out of 2800 people detained by the police for protesting are children or teenagers, and 584 have been reported injured, according to Chile’s human rights commission.
Media outlets that have profiled Gabriel Boric often note that he was part of the student-activist milieu, having gotten involved during high school. As a law student at the University of Chile, he was elected to lead its student union and emerged as a leader of the student movement in 2011, when a massive wave of protests erupted against the largely private education system and its gross inequities. Students decried the low level of government funding for public education and raised demands for free tuition at Chile’s universities. Those protests put Boric on the political map—he would be elected to Congress in 2013. By 2016, he was among legislators who passed several reforms to address student demands, yet they fell short of fulfilling their most pressing demands, such as free tuition, and another round of protests ensued.
In his years as a legislator, he angered many leftists by supporting the Anti-Barricade Law, which will be used to prosecute militants jailed for fighting the state during the October 2019 protests. Boric’s party, Social Convergence, was also among a group of left-wing parties, known together as the Broad Front (Frente Amplio), which led the charge to divert the mass protests into the so-called Constitutional Process. In fact, more militant activists resigned from Social Convergence when Boric entered into the agreement to hold a constitutional plebiscite.
Although a Boric presidency will be considerably more palatable that one led by Kast, the reformist brand of politics he represents have not proven to be successful in the past, and many activists appear unwilling to believe that a vote for Boric will result in the realization of the radical demands put forth by the protest movement’s left-wing.
Challenges for Boric: Constitutional Convention & the October movement
When the plebiscite was held last year, Chileans voted 78 percent to 22 percent to rewrite the Pinochet-era constitution, and subsequently elected delegates to a convention that will carry out the people’s mandate. Central to the demands of many protesters are to reform Chile’s educational system, health care, and pensions, all of which were subject to Pinochet’s neoliberal model that privatized public services—and these were only the tip of the iceberg. Not surprisingly, the military was highly privileged in Pinochet’s constitution, particularly during the dictator’s life but after he died as well. While Pinochet ruled, the military chose its own leaders, enjoyed a quota of seats in the Senate, and its budget was funded by 10 percent of the country’s copper revenue.
Since the late 1980s, Pinochet’s opposition among the liberal and social-democratic parties that had united in the Concertación coalition succeeded in rejecting the junta’s president in a plebiscite. This forced presidential and parliamentary elections in late 1989 and initiated the transition to democracy, culminating in Pinochet’s retreat from office in 1990. Before the elections were held, the opposition negotiated some minor reforms to the constitution, which were augmented years later by further reforms won in 2005. While nominally more democratic—for example, political leaders gained more control over the military and eliminated its appointments in the Senate—the constitution remained a pro-military, pro-capitalist constitution at its core, with neoliberal ideas enshrined in it.
In November 2019, after a month of militant mass protests, the parties participating in Boric’s Broad Front agreed to the Constitutional Process, and after a plebiscite approved the start of that process, the Constitutional Convention was elected and has started its work. It’s important to note that in spite of the significance the Convention represents for ridding Chile of Pinochet’s lingering legacy, the constituents to the Convention are hamstrung by the requirement that any change to the current constitution be passed by two-thirds majority, and all free trade agreements that Chile has entered into and judicial decisions hitherto pronounced are prohibited from annulment in a new constitution. Additionally, however radical the new constitution turns out to be, if it is rejected in a plebiscite vote, the Pinochet-era constitution goes back into effect. In the final analysis, any new constitution under these circumstances can only hope to make cosmetic changes to the system inherited from Pinochet and his bloody dictatorship of capital.
It is clear that Boric will confine his political agenda to enacting reforms that fall within the limitations set by Chile’s political and economic system. Additionally, once inaugurated in March, he will confront a strong right-wing presence in Congress, which will fight his agenda tooth and nail and do everything it can to discredit the Constitutional Convention’s work. He has put himself at further disadvantage by diluting his own reformist agenda in order to placate corporate interests worried about maintaining fiscal discipline and small business owners clamoring for him to prosecute “looters” jailed during the October protests—which he has promised them he will do.
And whatever the outcome of the Constitutional Convention, Chile’s youth and working class face serious structural challenges to realizing the demands of October that lie outside the constitution’s scope to address. Primary among them is closing the inequality gap.
It is on this point that Boric faces his greatest challenge. The demands raised during the October 2019 mass protests all seek to rectify a core issue, social inequality, which is a product of Chile’s capitalist economic system. Economist Michael Roberts posted an article in his blog on Dec. 21 noting that while Chile is the wealthiest country in Latin America, measured by GDP per capita, most of its wealth has accumulated to its wealthiest citizens. However, the bottom decile of the population has seen their share of Chile’s national income diminished in relative terms over the past 20 years. Roberts adds that the pension issue is particularly problematic, since many retirees do not find monthly payments to be adequate on which to live, especially in these times with inflation rising precipitously. He adds that Chile’s economic fortunes have, not surprisingly, been tied to the price of copper. Borich has given every indication that he has no plans to go beyond increasing taxes and royalties collected by the state on Chile’s copper mines.
Given the low rate of taxation on Chile’s capitalist class and its subjugation to the requirements of global capital and its money and commodity markets, Boric faces a dilemma on how to increase government spending for the social services he has promised to bolster. The reality is that it is likely that he will not fulfill these promises, and Chile’s wealth and income gap will persist.
This is the contradiction of social democracy. His politics, and the tradition on which they are grounded, are unable to overcome the rift that separates the supposed goal, socialism (vaguely defined), from the method, reformism. The militant left understands this, and while a Boric presidency may create the space needed to mobilize Chile’s masses, people who seek to realize the demands of October 2019 must demand that Boric extend an amnesty to political prisoners, withdraw military and police forces from Mapuche lands, create free and fully-funded public education and health care for all, and insist that all working-class Chileans not only have their income tied to inflation, but that they be guaranteed a livable pension in their old age.
The mass protests of October 2019 are responsible for both the Constitutional Convention and, indirectly, Boric’s electoral victory. But only the power of Chile’s student and labor movement, along with their allies, can ensure that the most radical demands of October are realized.
 Scheinpflug, Christian. “Chile dodged the authoritarian bullet – but it still ricochets.” Chile Today. 19 December 2021.
 Roberts, Michael. “Chile: copper bottomed?” Michael Roberts blog. 20 December 2021.
 “Social Convergence.” Wikipedia. 20 Dec. 2021.
 Albertus, Michael. “Chile’s Constitution is too new for its own good.” Foreign Policy. 21 May 2021.
 “Constitutional History of Chile.” ConstitutionNet.
 Bunyan, Rachael. “18 Killed as Hundreds of Thousands of Protestors Take to the Streets in Chile. Here’s What to Know.” Time. 28 October 2019.
 Nugent, Ciara. “The Leftist Millennial Who Could Lead One of Latin America’s Wealthiest and Unequal Countries.” Time. 19 November 2021.
 Roberts, Michael. “Chile: copper bottomed?” Michael Roberts blog. 20 December 2021.
Photo: Rodrigo Garrido / Reuters