The Left has seen a resurgence in Latin America over the last few years, from Bolivia to Chile, and likely more countries to come. The recent election of left-leaning Gabriel Boric to the Chilean presidency on December 19th, 2021 has inspired many and instilled hope that foreign-sponsored, right-wing governments are not the only option for Latin American nations. Nevertheless, fears of extreme reactions and US intervention remain. In Chile specifically, the legacy of the 1973 coup looms large over conversations and hopes for the future as there remains a split between supporters of and those against the Pinochet dictatorship and contemporary conservative movements.
The Legacy of the 1973 Coup
The enduring and painful legacy of the 1973 coup d’etat still cast a shadow over the 2021 Chilean presidential election. From the very start of his presidency in 1970, there had been growing tension and unrest between socialist president Salvador Allende and the Congress, which was controlled by the opposition. On September 11th, 1973, a US-backed coup against Allende took place, and with it came almost 20 years of military rule under Augusto Pinochet. The coup was absolutely brutal; the military set the Socialist Party headquarters on fire and shot people at random leaving people lying dead and bleeding on the streets. US intervention in this case, like many other instances in Latin America, was due to Cold War efforts to clamp down on any governments it perceived as being sympathetic to the Soviet Union. When Pinochet declared himself president in 1974, the US recognised him and his regime.
Throughout Pinochet’s dictatorship, any opposition was brutally crushed. Thousands of Chileans – particularly students, women, numerous Indigenous communities, and more – were tortured, injured, and killed. Leftist opposition parties were banned, along with trade unions. The Chilean government puts the overall number of executions and forced disappearances under Pinochet’s rule at 3,095, with tens of thousands more who were tortured, jailed, and 200,000 driven to exile.
In 1988, a referendum on whether or not Pinochet should remain in power for another eight years took place. With 56% of voters saying “no”, elections took place in December 1989 and by March 1990 he had been replaced. However, Pinochet served as Commander-in-Chief of the Army until March 1998 until he retired when he then became a senator-for-life, which was in line with the constitution he wrote up in 1980. Throughout the 90s, Chile transitioned from dictatorship to democracy, mostly with moderate reforms “more similar to European social democracy than Allende’s Unidad Popular socialism.”
These sentiments around Pinochet have continued to influence Chile’s political climate today, both directly and indirectly. This recent election came only two years after mass protests in Chile against the country’s right-wing neo-liberal economic model, which was put in place by Pinochet. The straw that broke the camel’s back resulting in these protests was the announcement that metro tickets during rush hour were going to be raised by 30 pesos ($0.04 USD). A young publicist in Chile explained that this hike in prices was “just the tip of the iceberg” and underscoring this tension was the overall system as “we don’t have good public health, the salaries are low – there are so many things that act against the people…”
This eventually led to a referendum on a new constitution, one that would not contain remnants of Pinochet’s legacy, but rather reflect the people who bravely took to the streets in 2019 and paid the price as they faced repercussions including torture and targeted blinding with pepper spray. On October 25th, 2020, with a turnout rate of 50%, people showed that they wished to replace the Pinochet-era constitution with a new one, dubbed “the people’s constitution,” which is still in the process of being written. As a consequence of this referendum, 155 seats were open to make up the Constitutional Convention, 65% of which went to left-wing and independent parties and coalitions. Despite repression, this has proved that Chile is open to change.
Additionally, despite enjoying international recognition as one of the most stable countries in Latin America, in reality, there has been growing inequality. By 2018, Chile’s GDP per capita was the highest in South America, and yet approximately half of the population was living on under $550 a month, life expectancies and income levels differed greatly by neighbourhood, and public education was underfunded. This lack of resources was what first brought Gabriel Boric to the streets.
The Myth of an Election of Extremes
The two candidates in the recent election offered different visions of Chile’s future and how they would lead. They were Boric, a left-wing former student activist, and his far-right opponent José Antonio Kast, a defender of former dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime. Many outlets framed this election as one between two extremes, but this was not entirely accurate.
Kast is a far-right politician, part of the Christian Social Front alliance, and a proud admirer of former dictator Augusto Pinochet. Kast has been open about the fact that if he had been elected president, he would have cut ties with left-wing governments in the region as well as repressed left-leaning activism. Additionally, he opposes the rewriting of the constitution as it would counter his beliefs. Considering the assembly in charge of rewriting the constitution is dominated by independents and left-wing parties, had Kast won, his opposition to a new constitution could have led to a power struggle or even the termination of a new constitution entirely.
During his time in the Chamber of Deputies, Kast voted against legislation that would help women in Chile, defending his decision by citing his beliefs in “Catholic family values.” During his presidential campaign, he indicated his intention to eliminate the Women’s Ministry, which aims to end gender-based violence and enhance gender equality. His proposed reforms included programs to subsidise family planning only to heterosexual families, excluding single parents and same-sex couples, as well as banning all abortions by repealing the only saving grace for many women: access to abortion in “the case of rape, danger to the mother’s life, or if the fetus will not survive.”
Boric came at a time of a resurgence of non-establishment politics in Chile, on the heels of the Chilean assembly vote, which saw Concertación, a coalition of centre-left political parties founded in 1988, provide a transition from elitist, US-backed government to a more equitable democracy. Boric’s political life began as a protester in 2011, when he led a movement to demand more funding for public education. However, a myth about Boric that needs to be broken is that he is somehow part of the “extreme Left.” In his time of student organising, he left the Marxist-based Autonomous Left, instead choosing to create the Frente Amplio coalition “which sought a more pragmatic approach to gaining power, including coalition building.”
In reality, Boric doesn’t represent radical change but rather the “minimum demands from the 2019 protests.” His ideas are not radical by any stretch. He has the expected points of a progressive candidate: women’s rights, climate action, commitments to Indigenous communities, and recognising the LGBT community. However, he is in favour of regulation, not nationalisation. More ambitious parts of his platform included expanding public-access health care and the pension system, aspects of the social security net that had been challenged by privatisation. Critics of his labelling as a leftist argue that though they “may be economically unfeasible in the short term, [they] hardly seem revolutionary.” Additionally, he has denounced both Venezuela’s and Cuba’s left-wing governments, which many leftists would challenge him on.
Kast on the other hand is, in fact, an extremist. The fact of being a supporter of Augusto Pinochet should be reason enough to believe he is on the wrong side of history. Couple his dictatorship sympathies and denial of human rights violations, along with his hardline stance on immigration inspired by US’ ICE and a member of his coalition expressing doubt about women’s right to vote, it is clear who Chile would be worse off with.
The painting of this election as one of two extremes is comical, and yet Western media seems very concerned about either candidate harming Chilean democracy. However, as journalist Brian Perez-Canto wrote, the West “fear[s] Boric not because his candidacy challenges the national project of capitalism but because Chile could now join the wave of progressive governments in Latin America after being one of the strongholds of US imperialism.”
Power to the People
The Chilean people have proven time and time again that they will fight for the change they want to see, no matter the repercussions. May their perseverance be a lesson to us all to continue fighting. Boric’s win was not the end goal but it is a step in the right direction. The real change, however, comes from the people.
Salvador Allende said this in his last speech in 1973, before the coup, and it remains ever-true:
“They have strength and will be able to dominate us, but social processes can be arrested neither by crime nor force. History is ours, and people make history.”