March 20, 2022
Left Turn in Chile

R Arun Kumar

GABRIEL Boric took oath as the president of Chile on March 11. This marks the ushering of a new chapter in the history of Chile.
Boric is the youngest president of Chile, elected at the age of 35 years (the minimum age required to contest for presidency). He represents the alliance, Apruebo Dignidad, which includes Boric’s party Frente Amplio (Broad Front), the Communist Party of Chile and other smaller social movements. After Salvador Allende, Boric is the first to win the election in alliance with the Communist Party.
Along with Boric, his new cabinet also assumed office on March 11. Talking about his cabinet, Boric stated: “Our team must be diverse so that all social sectors are represented when it comes to promoting transformative policies. It will not be easy to accomplish this task, but we will not surrender”. Representing this vision, there are communist deputies, along with socialists in his cabinet. There are two defining features of his cabinet – one, it comprises of a majority of women – 14 out of the 25 members of the cabinet are women. The other is the composition of youth. The average age of the cabinet works out to 42 years. For the first time, young, and women dominated cabinet took office, in the place of male and middle-aged ministers.
33-year old Communist deputy, Camila Vallejo is the executive spokeswoman of the government and Giorgio Jackson, aged 35 years is minister in charge of relations with parliament. Both of them are fellow student activists, who led the movement against the country's commercialised education system, demanding equal access for the poor. For the first time a woman, Izkia Siches (36 years), will head the interior ministry, while a former cleaner and trade unionist, 48-year-old Luz Vidal, is the new deputy minister for women and gender equality. Maya Fernández, (50 years) grand-daughter of Allende, deposed in Pinochet’s 1973 military coup d’état, is Chile’s new defence minister.
After assuming office, Boric delivered a speech from the balcony of the presidential palace. Recalling the CIA led aerial bombing on the presidential palace during the coup against Allende, Boric stated: “These walls have been witnesses to the horror of a past of violence and oppression that we have not forgotten nor will we forget. Where we speak today, yesterday rockets entered and that can never be repeated in our history”.
Boric promised that “there will never again be human rights violations in Chile”, such as those that were committed during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) and the recent police repression on the protesters demanding a break from neoliberal policies.
In his address, he also criticised the existing pension system, health system, student indebtedness, gender discrimination and diversity. He vowed to act against the dispossession of indigenous peoples’ lands. Talking about ‘culture not valued enough’, he mentioned the need to protect the diverse culture of Chile and protect artists and their rights. Fair distribution of the fruits of growth would be the aim of his government. Again referencing history and alluding to Allende, he stated, “We are not starting from scratch, we know there is a history that lifts and inspires us”.
The swearing-in ceremony of Boric and his cabinet also involved lot of symbolism. Cecilia Flores, an indigenous Aymara told the news agency Reuters that it was the first time representatives from all the indigenous groups were been present at the inauguration. She was hoping that this is not just a symbolic act but would go a long way to address the concerns of the indigenous people. “It's a sign that it's going to be an inclusive government. It's going to be a government that will make the social changes the people of Chile have been fighting for, especially indigenous groups”.
Boric himself took oath of office in a simple shirt and jacket, without a tie. He refused to relocate to wealthier localities even after he became a deputy to the Congress and continued to live in the largely dilapidated but historic neighbourhood of Yungay on a road called ‘Orphans’ that sits between ‘Liberty’ and ‘Hope’, even as a president-elect. While taking oath, he chose the words ‘I promise’ instead of ‘I swear’. Thus his oath began with the words, “Before the people and peoples of Chile, yes, I promise...” This was an expression of putting people before any divine power and his personal commitment to fulfill the promises made during the election campaign.
Fulfilling election promises is not going to be an easy task for Boric. Chile is one of the most unequal countries in the world. According to the United Nations, one per cent of the population holds over 25 per cent of the wealth. On the top of it, Chile is staring at economic slowdown and high inflation. Though defeated, the ruling classes are well represented in the parliament and the rest of the State machinery. Boric has to deal with them to ensure his agenda is implemented. As a former student activist and people’s representative elected on a Left platform, he would know that unless the economic concerns of the poor people are addressed, he would not be able to address the social and political crisis that is created by the implementation of neoliberal policies.
Boric declared during his campaign: “If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave. Do not be afraid of the youth changing this country”. Now that he is the president, he has the responsibility to act. Jeremy Corbyn, former leader of the Labour Party, Britain, who attended the oath taking ceremony of Boric cautioned: “It is a very tough fight he is taking on; he will be given a lot of advice from a lot of people that do not wish him well and do not wish for the social change he wants to bring about; well, he is going to have to stand up for the principles that he won the election on, social justice, good education, free healthcare, protecting the environment. Above all, let's create a world fit for the next generation…”
Boric nevertheless has certain advantages on which he can base himself to start his work. One such advantage is the work being done by the Constituent Assembly elected by a popular referendum. Boric already pledged to respect the recommendations of the assembly. He said that he would immediately place the draft for people’s acceptance through a referendum (mid 2022).
The Constituent Assembly had already approved a proposal declaring Chile a ‘Plurinational and Intercultural State’ as opposed to the existing constitution that declares it as a ‘unitary state’ (Article 3). The new constitution being drafted also accepted the indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination and self-government. Thus, the long pending demands of the indigenous people are being addressed.
Some of the major demands of the women’s movement in Chile are the right to abortion and sexual and reproductive rights. It is on these demands that hundreds of thousands of women joined the anti-government protest demonstrations that shook Chile and paved way for Boric’s election. Taking all these aspects into cognisance, the assembly accepted an article in the new constitution that states: “everyone has sexual and reproductive rights. This includes, among other things, the right to determine sexual desire, reproduction, pleasure and contraception in a free, independent and informed manner with respect to the body”. Further, “Exercise sexual and reproductive rights without discrimination by focusing on pregnancy status, voluntary termination of pregnancy, childbirth, and all women and people who have the ability to endure voluntary and protected births”. Barbara Sepulveda, a deputy of the Communist Party hailed this development: “Today we had to wait 200 years to break the cycle of exclusion and discrimination in the history of the Constitution”.
The other major issue that brought people to the streets demanding a new constitution is their vexation over neoliberal policies. Tracing the origins of neoliberalism in the constitution drafted during the Pinochet era, people overwhelmingly voted for a Constituent Assembly to draft a constitution that protects them from neoliberal attacks. Reflecting this consensus, in his victory speech, Boric stated: “We are a generation that emerged in public life demanding our rights be respected as rights and not treated like consumer goods or a business…We know there continues to be justice for the rich, and justice for the poor, and we no longer will permit that the poor keep paying the price of Chile's inequality”. This is going to be a big challenge that Boric will be facing in the coming days.
Boric’s victory comes after the victories of Pedro Castillo in Peru and Xiomara Castro in Honduras, both representing progressive forces and the Left. In May 2022, elections will be held in Colombia, where the Left is fighting hard to defeat the pro-US, right-wing forces. This will be followed by elections in Brazil in October, where Lula da Silva has good chances of being elected to the presidency. Together with Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, Boric can depend on them for his pro-people initiatives. He himself had announced from the presidential palace that his government would be ‘profoundly Latin American’ and would work with all the countries, ‘without ever subordinating to any power, and always safeguarding coordination and cooperation among peoples’.
As the president of Chile, the time has come for Boric to walk the talk.