By Lily Bolash
For decades, Chile posed as a regional anchor in terms of stability and progress. However, recent unrest has called this status into question, leaving many Chileans to seek solutions from the political left. Chile now belongs to a club of Latin American countries forming the region’s nueva izquierda (7). Unfortunately, the country’s record has been faulty from the start, and shows little sign of improving soon. Save for a slight margin of error, it remains clear that Chile is not a compatible test subject for Latin America’s socialist experiment.
Chile has often been considered a shining exception from the turbulent political and economic trends that have characterised Latin America in recent history; this unique status is directly linked to the country’s complicated relationship with its socialist past.
In the early 1970s, Chile was led by President Salvador Allende of the leftist party called ‘Unidad Popular’ (2). The Allende government implemented a widespread socialist agenda that controlled prosperous sectors of the Chilean economy (for example, copper mines were nationalised). However, Allende’s economic policies led to hyperinflation, market instability, and a fiscal deficit (6). Additionally, the political and economic elites in Chile felt increasingly threatened by the imposition of a socialist government from above and the presence of a radical mass from below. Eventually, in 1973, Allende was ousted by a coup that brought together the Chilean military, the bourgeoisie class, and the United States – allowing for dictator Augusto Pinochet to come to power. Immediately following this violent transition, the end to Allende’s socialist attempt was viewed as a derrota, or defeat by external forces; only with the passage of time were the aforementioned shortcomings of his policies realised, and the view changed to one of an internal fracaso, or failure.
Regardless, Pinochet worked ruthlessly to purge socialism from Chilean society (2). Throughout the 1980s, the Chilean economy was contrarily modelled using neoliberal reforms; such reforms continued to be applied throughout the 1990s, even after the Pinochet era concluded and democracy was restored (6). Despite originating from the brutal dictatorship, these reforms were valued for their economic success and lasting effects on Chile’s prominent regional and global status. Boasting a reputation for high foreign investment, valuable trade relations, and an expanding exports sector, Chile rose like a phoenix from the ashes of its own turbulent history.
Over recent years, however, it has become apparent that the Chilean ‘economic phoenix’ has injured wings. Contrary to preconceived belief, Chile is not immune from the challenges to stability and prosperity across Latin America. For context, it is one of the most unequal regions in the world alongside Sub-Saharan Africa – the richest 1% of the population accumulates 25% of countries’ national incomes (5). This inequality is upheld by a lack of competition due to the domination of well-connected family businesses. In Chile in particular, taxes and transfers do next to nothing to redistribute income to the nation’s most impoverished.
Various protest movements engendered by these inequalities have characterised twenty-first century Chile so far. For example, copper miners pursued better wages and the renationalisation of the industry, and the Mapuche indigenous community advocated for land rights and protections against logging companies (6). Most infamously, however, the early 2010s saw a mass movement by students and teachers protesting the impact of privatisation on the quality of education. Accompanying this student movement was a general revival of socialist political thought in the nation, since student unions and leftist discourse dominated its organisation. More recently, another wave of anti-inequality protests in 2019, coupled with the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, has created an atmosphere of desperation for change in Chile – it is this condition that led the country to once again lease the Palacio de La Moneda in Santiago to a socialist.
Protestor Turned President
In 2021, the Chilean electorate overwhelmingly voted in favour of the leftist candidate, Gabriel Boric. At thirty-six years old, Boric is the youngest president in Chilean history; he is just old enough to have grown up under the waning shadow of the Pinochet dictatorship. Throughout his adolescence and young adult life, Boric dabbled in leftist ideology: in high school, he pursued joining the armed resistance group, ‘Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria,’ and at university, he became president of the student federation during the wave of protests targeting education quality in the country (8).
Eventually, his political platform as a student leader led to his election to Congress in 2014; his first day on the job, Boric stood out by showing up sin corbata (tieless). Throughout his tenure in office, Boric continued to be untraditional. He criticised the centre-right and centre-left political coalitions that had dominated Chilean politics since the reinstatement of democracy in the 1990s (3). To Boric, both are too moderate to pursue the leftist reforms he believes can resolve the country’s inequality crisis. Rather than align with either, Boric – elected as an independent – instead preferred affiliations with the Communist Party and other leftist factions.
Leftist reforms lay at the core of Boric’s campaign rhetoric. Even without the contrast of his ultra-conservative opponent, José Antonio Kast, Boric’s platform was perceived as shockingly socialist for Chile: it called for dramatic economic reforms to transition the country from a privatised system of public services to a welfare state. As a result, his campaign symbolised a break with the past (8). By definitively electing Boric, the Chilean people granted him and his administration a mandate to heal the underlying bruises of neoliberalism with a socialist salve.
Retreating to Centre
So far, however, Boric’s socialism has failed to perform as advertised. Even on the campaign trail, Boric had to taper down his leftist rhetoric in order to secure enough votes (3). Similarly, once elected, he appointed the moderate, well-established chief of the central bank as finance minister to quell concerns over his economic agenda (1).
The biggest setback to Boric’s platform, however, has been the recent rejection of the newly-drafted constitution. In light of the 2019 protests, Boric collaborated with the government to create the agreement that paved the way for the rewriting process. At the time, his actions were negatively viewed as a concession to the right (3). Since, he has been closely associated with the new constitution, which was largely written by other young and leftist politicians (4). The final draft consisted of 388 articles and endeavoured to institutionalise over 100 rights. It would have bestowed autonomous territories to indigenous people, enabled trade unions with the unfettered right to strike, and increased government spending by 14% of the GDP. On September 4, 2022, the document was soundly rejected by 62% of voters; 86% of eligible Chileans participated in the referendum, a statistic that firmly validates the newfound public sentiments.
This defeat has only highlighted other troubles in Chile, including weakening copper prices, instability due to the removal of the pandemic-era stimulus, and predictions for the GDP to shrink. Such conditions are accompanied by a shift in priorities among the electorate. Even though Chileans saw Boric as the answer to their recent crises, overall, the country values the stability of its democracy, institutional strength, and economic prosperity (6). Concern for pressing issues like crime and inflation is quickly outpacing that for pensions and healthcare (4). As a result, Boric has recently changed several positions within his cabinet, replacing several young, socialist ministers for more experienced voices from the centre-left. As during the campaign, this change in tune from Boric indicates a practical retreat back towards the centre.
At present, the future of Boric’s administration appears bleak. There is a possibility that another constitution will be drafted, and uncertainties about the scope of its contents will prevent the most significant reforms in Boric’s agenda from being implemented. Meanwhile, his mandate for socialist policies wanes with each passing month. During the election, it seemed as though the leftist tide had finally washed over Chile. However, results are more important than ideals. Chileans do seek remedies to the ails of inequality; yet, they are not keen to overdose on a socialist medicine. This reality was most sharply illustrated by the defeat of the new constitution.
Now, the era of idealism emboldened and rewarded via Boric’s presidential bid has come to an end. It is necessary for the Chilean president to water down his agenda in order to achieve prompt change. The mood of the electorate and the state of the economy both require smart steps forward, which calls upon Boric to table the undiluted version of his vision. Should he fail to do so, his administration will be remembered as yet another socialist fracaso like Allende – only Boric will be ousted by the coup of public opinion come the next election cycle.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.
Image obtained from Jabcobin
(1) Bartlett, John. “Chile’s President-Elect Names Progressive, Majority-Women Cabinet.” The Guardian. January 2022.
(2) Burbach, Roger, Michael Fox, and Federico Fuentes. Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First Century Socialism. New York: Zed Books, 2013.
(3) “Chile’s New President Promises to Bury Neoliberalism.” The Economist. December 2021.
(4) “Common Sense Prevails as Chileans Reject a New Constitution.” The Economist. September 2022.
(5) “Inequality in Latin America is Fueling a New Wave of Populism.” The Economist. August 2022.
(6) Lievesley, Geraldine and Steve Ludlam. Reclaiming Latin America: Experiments in Radical Social Democracy. New York: Zed Books, 2009.
(7) Padinger, Germán. “Una ‘Nueva Izquierda’ se consolida en América Latina. ¿En qué podría diferenciarse de la vieja?” CNN Español. June 2022.
(8) Turkewitz, Julie, Pascale Bonnefoy and John Bartlett. “Los Retos de Gabriel Boric, El Presidente Electo de Chile.” The New York Times. December 2021.