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Can Chile’s Young President Reimagine the Latin American Left?


But, as despotic as Pinochet was, even he embodied some of Chile’s institutionalist tendencies. After seven years in power, he sought to legitimatize his tenure by drafting a new constitution. In Santiago, Pinochet once explained to me that the old constitution had been a drag on his power. “You have to be able to set the goalposts to be able to act!” he said. “So I set the goalposts.”

In 1988, Pinochet held a referendum, hoping to secure eight more years in power. This time, he lost, but he didn’t entirely withdraw. He kept command of the armed forces, and had arranged for himself to be named a senator for life, along with nine handpicked associates. He had parliamentary immunity and, through an alliance with right-wing political parties, effective control of the legislature.

Pinochet’s grip on Chile was loosened in 1998, by a surprise arrest. As he visited the United Kingdom, the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón had him apprehended on charges of genocide, torture, and terrorism. Pinochet was ultimately allowed to return home, but he was diminished, and spent the rest of his life fighting prosecution. In 2005, he was discovered to have stashed millions of dollars of pilfered government funds in more than a hundred and twenty concealed bank accounts, with help from the U.S.-based Riggs Bank. When Pinochet died, the following year, few Chileans mourned his passing.

After his widow, Lucía Hiriart, died, last December, at the age of ninety-eight, the streets of Santiago filled with crowds drinking champagne and shouting in celebration. One placard read “Chau vieja CTM ”—a slogan, abbreviating the local epithet concha tu madre, that translates roughly as “Bye-bye, you old bitch.”

The evening before Boric left for his island vacation, we met at the home of the writer Patricio (Pato) Fernández, in the suburb of Providencia. Fifty-two, with a Teddy-bear build and an easy sense of humor, Fernández is a political commentator and the founder of The Clinic, a satirical newspaper that he started in order to poke fun at Pinochet. (The name refers to the British medical facility where Pinochet was recovering from back surgery when he was arrested.) Fernández’s paper is generally progressive, but it does not spare the left: one memorable cover depicted Nicolás Maduro, the obstreperous leader of Venezuela, with donkey ears, under the headline “Nicolás Maburro.”

At Fernández’s house, Boric wore his habitual outfit of jeans, beat-up boots, and a checked flannel shirt. He had brought along pisco and Coca-Cola, and periodically refilled a red plastic cup. He sent his Presidential bodyguards out to buy beef, and then bustled around a grill in the garden.

I had spent an evening with Fernández and Boric in 2015, at a bar near the Punta Arenas waterfront called the Shackleton, for the Anglo-Irish explorer who limped into Chile after his ordeal in Antarctica. It was winter in Patagonia, and a cold wind whipped outside as Boric and Fernández talked intently about Michelle Bachelet’s latest travails. Bachelet had staked her Presidency on the promise of education reform, but she had become embroiled in a scandal involving her son and a questionable bank loan.

Boric, in his early days as a parliamentarian, was bright, intense, and ambitious, but new to politics and looking for guidance. Born in 1986, he hardly remembered the Pinochet years and, like others of his generation, he felt impatient with moderate reforms. Fernández had come of age under the dictatorship and had learned to value the freedoms brought about by the Concertación governments. He had his ear to the ground, and could tell Boric things that he wouldn’t hear elsewhere.

Since then, the two had built a close friendship, with Boric coming often to Fernández’s home for dinner or to play chess with his teen-age son, León. When their conversations ran late, Boric slept on the couch. These days, Fernández likes to tell visitors, “The President has slept where you are sitting.”

During the estallido social, the two men were drawn into the national debate over how to end the upheaval. In “Sobre la Marcha,” a book Fernández wrote about the demonstrations, he argued in favor of the Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution, saying that the process could help calm Chile’s civil strife and address its endemic social inequities, “so that after leaving behind the time for throwing stones, as Ecclesiastes once said, we can enter the time of gathering them together.”

Boric’s party, Social Convergence, opposed the agreement, which it saw as an impediment to more foundational reforms. But, Fernández recalled, “I argued strongly in favor. Even though it wasn’t a demand of the groups on the street, it seemed like most of their demands could find common cause in a new constitution.” In the end, Boric signed—in his own name, rather than as a representative of Social Convergence. The Party suspended him, but the deal went through. As Boric saw it, he’d gambled his political capital in order to get rid of “Pinochet’s constitution once and for all.”

Social Convergence eventually took Boric back, but he retained some enemies on the street. Soon after signing the agreement, he was sitting in a park when a group of leftists began cursing at him, accusing him of having “sold out the people.” As they soaked him with beer and spat on him, Boric stayed seated and quietly stared them down. His calm response was widely praised.

When the proposal for a new constitution was put to a referendum, it was approved overwhelmingly, by seventy-eight per cent of voters. A constitutional congress was elected: a hundred and fifty-five representatives, of whom three-quarters were leftists or independents. They included Fernández, who had run at the urging of friends.

The convencionales, as they are known, were given until this July to draft a constitution, which they will submit to a referendum in the fall. In a column after the Presidential election, Fernández wrote, “Gabriel Boric knows perfectly well that the destiny of his Presidency is inextricably linked to that of this constitutional process.” But, as the convencionales began drafting proposals, the pragmatic spirit that Boric embodied often seemed absent. A veteran Marxist named María Magdalena Rivera solemnly proposed a Soviet-style system in which all state institutions would be replaced by a “Multinational Assembly of Workers and Peoples” that would exclude such “parasitic figures” as senior clergy, the military, and owners of corporations. An environmental commission proposed special protections for fungi. One convencional, a tattooed man with a shaved head known as Baldy Vade, was ejected; he had run for office on an inspiring story of surviving cancer, which it turned out he’d never had.

Many of the impractical proposals were rejected. But the media, particularly on the right, have presented a steady drip of news about the more bizarre ideas. If the constitutional congress fails, it would be disastrous for Boric’s government, potentially reviving his opponents on both the right and the hard left. Fernández wrote, “Success will require the building of new forms of trust, of a cohesion gained through new civilizing challenges, and the complicity of diverse sectors of Chilean society.” He meant that Boric needed to bring together a divided country before it fell apart.

Chile is known as one of Latin America’s “poetic countries,” the birthplace of Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, and Nicanor Parra. Another poetic country is Nicaragua, the home of Rubén Darío and also of Gioconda Belli—a poet and writer who has been exiled for fiercely criticizing her country’s despotic ruler, Daniel Ortega. Boric invited Belli to represent Nicaragua at his swearing-in. The day after the ceremony, a lunch in her honor was held in the elegant apartment of the writer Carla Guelfenbein.

Among the guests was Chile’s de-facto poet laureate, Raúl Zurita, a bearded man of seventy-two. During the Presidential campaign, he had presented Boric with a manifesto of support, signed by more than five hundred Chilean writers, which expressed fear that a Kast government risked “taking us back to the darkest moments in our history.” In a less restrained mood, Zurita had told an interviewer that he was “ready to commit suicide rather than vote” for Kast.

At lunch, Zurita was feeling celebratory, as were most of the guests; speeches were interrupted frequently by champagne toasts. Things quieted when Belli spoke about her new life in Madrid, and recalled the death of an old friend who had been jailed on Ortega’s orders. Belli’s presence at the swearing-in was a coded rebuke: Ortega and his wife and co-leader, Rosario Murillo, were not invited.

For Boric, this kind of intrigue was just a small indicator of the geopolitical problems that he might face. During one of our conversations, he confessed that he wished he’d seen more of the world before becoming President. He had taken his first trip outside the region when he was thirteen, going with his family to Disney World. He threw up his hands and laughed with embarrassment. At seventeen, he’d lived for four months in a village near Nancy, France, but he’d seen little of the country. It was soon after the U.S. invaded Iraq, and his host family was too worried about retaliatory terror attacks to allow him to visit Paris. Instead, Boric stayed close to the village, and the father, a veteran of the Algerian war, regaled him with stories about throwing prisoners from helicopters. A few years later, Boric joined his parents on a Mediterranean tour, but he caught no more than a glimpse of Europe. “Rome, Prague, Cairo, Athens—a day in each place,” he said, shrugging.



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