Gabriel Boric’s acid test

The Chile President-elect’s aim of providing social rights rests on addressing the problem of high income inequality

December 22, 2021 12:15 am | Updated July 06, 2022 12:22 pm IST

The 2021 presidential election in Chile, which resulted in the victory of the Left candidate Gabriel Boric, actually began in October 2019. During that month, the government of President Sebastián Piñera raised transportation prices, which resulted in a cycle of unending protests. These protests were led by young people, including schoolchildren, which is why Mr. Boric opened his victory speech by thanking the children for their work on his campaign. Unusual around the world, Chile’s students have a high participation rate in high school and college organisations. “I am 35 years old,” Mr. Boric said. “And I know that history does not start with us”. But it is clear that this election campaign owed much to the youth upsurge that put social issues on the table and forced the government to confront the growing income inequality in the country.

The ghost of Salvador Allende hung over the election campaign and the victory night. “Go home,” Mr. Boric said at the end of his victory speech, roughly quoting Allende, “with the healthy joy of the clean victory we have achieved.” It was indeed a clean victory, with a high voter participation rate and a clear majority for Mr. Boric.

When we met Mr. Boric a few months before the final vote, he brimmed with confidence that his country would like to restart the positive dynamic started by Allende in 1970 and cut short by the U.S.-backed coup of General Augusto Pinochet in 1973. The week before the election, Pinochet’s wife – Lucía Hiriart – died, sending a signal that the era of the old General is now fully over.

An emphasis on dignity

Mr. Boric began his political life in the student movement, leading the University of Chile Student Federation alongside the Communist Party’s Camila Vallejo into the student protests of 2011. It was in these struggles that the linkages grew among the students of the Left, with some such as Ms. Vallejo going into the communist movements and others such as Mr. Boric going into the new Left formations. Mr. Boric joined the socialist formation called Social Convergence, which became part of the political coalition named Broad Front. The Broad Front is committed to environmental and social rights as well as building an economic model that will move towards socialism. In this election campaign, the Broad Front joined forces with the Communist Party – with Mr. Boric and Ms. Vallejo as the most public faces of the unity – to run a campaign built on the social protests since 2019 and against Chile’s growing inequality.

Mr. Boric’s electoral coalition was called Approve Dignity. Mr. Boric’s close ally Giorgio Jackson in Santiago told us that it was clear that the social temperature in Chile favoured the Left: the majority believed in women’s rights and gay rights as well as in environmentalism. Part of the impact of the term ‘dignity’ is that it amplifies the importance of these rights and the meaning they have for a large section of Chile’s population. The possibility of attaining social rights, however, rests on addressing the fundamental problem of Chile’s high rate of income inequality.

Make the economy sing

Chile’s economic indicators swing from high per capita income – which allows it to remain a member of good standing in the OECD – to high income inequality. Reliance upon copper exports has made the country dependent on the price of copper in the world market, which has plummeted since 2010. When copper prices are high, the profits and royalties from copper sales have helped improve the fortunes of the country. But this long decline is part of the reason why there have been cycles of protests since 2012 against governments unwilling to come to terms with the structural problem in the country.

When Gen. Pinochet came to office, he brought in a set of economists called the ‘Chicago Boys’ to experiment with neo-liberalism. He privatised most services, including pensions, and allowed the private sector to prey on the population. With the decline in copper revenues and the rise in the price of private services, the situation became dire for the public. Mr. Jackson told us that a Boric government is going to do a few reasonable things to take control of the situation: raise taxes on the wealthy, demand an increase in the share of copper revenues against multinational corporations, reform the pension system, and tackle the decline in public services. Whether Mr. Boric will be able to raise the funds to conduct large-scale redistribution and accelerate the diversification of the economy is to be seen.

When Allende was in office, U.S. President Richard Nixon said he would fight the socialists by making the economy scream. Mr. Boric will have to see if the Chilean oligarchy will allow him to make the economy sing. That’s what he was voted in to do.

Taroa Zúñiga Silva and Vijay Prashad write for the global news syndication service Globetrotte r

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