At 37 years old, Gabriel Boric is the icon of the new generation of leftists who assumed political power in Chile just one year ago. How to judge his management? One possibility is to compare what was achieved with what was dreamed of before arriving at La Moneda; another, to ponder the threats and temptations he has avoided in singularly stormy times. I’ll take the second. As Labor Premier Harold Wilson told the Queen in The Crownthe magnitude of a leader is measured in his ability to alleviate more crises than those he causes.
Boric, and the forces that catapulted him to power, jumped into public life to subvert the established order. Economically, bury the neoliberal model and overcome extractivism. Politically, break with the “30 years” that began after the victory over Pinochet, and incidentally with the center-left political elite that administered them. Culturally, advance the liberal and identity agenda of feminism, gender and gender diversities and indigenous peoples. Internationally, move away from capitalist globalism, join the fight against global warming and get closer to Latin America.
Before taking office, it was already evident that his original agenda lacked sufficient citizen support and that the scenario was very different from the one imagined, which made his original script unfeasible. To start with, Boric’s victory over the far-right Kast was narrow and he did not get a majority in Congress. The effects of the pandemic, plus the war in Ukraine, unleashed the specter of the economic crisis. The radicalization of crime, the violence associated with the Mapuche cause in the south, as well as the chaotic entry of migrants through the northern border —phenomena that had gotten out of control at the end of the Piñera administration— had made security the first priority of the population, well above the causes that fueled the popular revolt of October 2019.
In its first months, the new government lived with a Convention elected to write a new Constitution, a project to which it was linked by strong programmatic and affective ties. In its form and content, it brought the liberal-progressive agenda to paroxysm, which provoked a powerful conservative reaction. Proof of this was the overwhelming rejection of his proposal in the referendum last September. With this, six months after taking office, the project that brought Boric to power was in check and the threat of a governance crisis loomed.
The young president’s reaction was unexpected. He accepted defeat in the referendum without question, pointing out that in a democracy the people are always right. He declared himself in favor of continuing with the constitutional process, leaving the definition of the mechanisms in the hands of the parties and Congress. He called on the government teams to focus on the demands of the population, prioritizing security. And he incorporated figures from the old Concertación into the heart of La Moneda, with Carolina Tohá as chief of staff. Thus, in a few hours, Boric redirected the direction of his administration and broadened his support base, without causing cracks in his original coalition.
Since then the government has assumed the new route without complexes. In view of the violence in the south, the Armed Forces have been deployed in support of the police, the leaders of the Mapuche military groups have been imprisoned by order of the Prosecutor’s Office, gangs dedicated to the theft of wood have been broken up, and a plan for dialogue and collaboration with the communities. On the northern border, with the authorization of Congress, the military has been ordered to support the control of illegal immigration and drug trafficking. A rapprochement with the opposition has been sought regarding a public security modernization plan, which was derailed by the presidential decision to pardon twelve convicted of the events of October 2019, fulfilling a campaign commitment and responding to a heartfelt demand of his most radical supporters. However, the iron and transversal support for the police has resulted in a slight decline in crime and public disorder. An eloquent indicator is the near disappearance of the tents that had taken over the public spaces of Santiago.
At the economic level, inflation begins to subside. The fiscal accounts are the best in twelve years, partly due to the lithium rent, but above all to the rigor imposed by the powerful minister Marcel. After long controversies, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership was signed; the same was done with the EU, which indicates that Chile will not abandon its policy of global economic integration. Approaches have been sought towards Latin America, but without yielding to protectionist formulas and without renouncing an unrestricted defense of human rights.
The constitutional process, meanwhile, has been channeled in an agreed manner by all the political parties, except for the extreme right. The failure of the Convention has limited expectations and lessened discrepancies. If everything goes as planned, the exercise will conclude next December with a new exit plebiscite, and the new Constitution of Chile will have the signature of President Boric.
The government has this year left to bring out its two emblematic reforms, the tax and pension reforms. Without a majority in Congress, he will be forced to give in and seek agreement with the entire democratic political spectrum, just as was done with the constituent process. The recent rejection of the deputies to the pro-government tax project shows that there are no shortcuts.
In short, the Boric generation has had to focus on sustaining and patching up a public order that was on the verge of collapse. If it succeeds, half a century after the military coup, and just as it did in 1990 when it reconquered its democracy, Chile will have entered a new stage of equilibrium. It’s not what they dreamed of, but it’s what they got.
Eugenio Tironi is a doctor in sociology and author of impatient society (Ariel, 2023).
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