Good news today is that Gabriel Boric has won the presidential election in Chile. In his campaign, he promised to bury the neoliberal economic system imposed by Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-90 dictatorship, raise taxes on the super-rich, fight inequality, expand social services, and strengthen ecological protection.
Boric won 56 per cent of the votes, compared to 44 per cent for his opponent, José Antonio Kast, a supporter of the dictator. Boric will be 36 years of age when he is sworn in on March 11.
But like his neighbour to the north, Peruvian President Pedro Castillo (elected in June), Boric will face both a fragmented congress and a deeply-entrenched system that will oppose his agenda.
Since the election of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1970 and despite the coup three years later, the left in Latin America has participated in elections and governed according to the rules of liberal democracy. They do so without sufficient regard for the roles of money, foreign interference and private media companies.
Chile has had several other relatively progressive presidents since the demise of Pinochet (Patricio Aylwin, Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet), but none could undo his political and economic system. They were referred to not as “socialists” but as “socios listos” – willing business partners. After widespread protests at the end of 2019, Chileans set in motion a process to create a new constitution, and the election of Boric may help to re-energize that lagging process.
But action by private bus companies in Sunday’s election, when they reduced service in poor neighbourhoods to try to suppress votes for the left, may be a sign of things to come. I was a young teen in a small town in western Canada in the early 70s, but I remember the transportation shutdowns – strikes by capital – together with other actions that damaged Allende’s government well before the coup.
That progressive politicians are chosen in multi-party elections has never prevented the United States and its allies (including Canada) from supporting coups – and this is only a partial list, not counting the invasions – in Guatemala (1954), Dominican Republic (1963), Brazil (1964), Chile (1973), Argentina (1976), Venezuela (2002), Honduras (2009), Bolivia (1964, 2019), or the parliamentary coups like those in Paraguay (2012) and Brazil (2016). By the way, you should read Vincent Bevins (2020), The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade & the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World – and follow him on Twitter @Vinncent.
I met Juan Bosch, one of the overthrown presidents, in 1987. He had been elected to serve as president of the Dominican Republic after the Trujillo dictatorship, but was ousted in September 1963 with the complicity of a White House run by that paragon of U.S. liberal democracy, John F. Kennedy. Bosch said that the United States was interested only in “formal democracy” – that elections appeared to be held; external funding allowed only if it came from the United States.
In a 1986 interview, Bosch said: “Only North American leaders think that democracy could or should function in any Latin American country the way it does in the United States.”
“It’s the right, not the left, that has historically blocked those paths,” insisted Marta Harnecker, chronicler of the Latin American left until her death in 2019.
“The possibility that the left has now to compete in many spaces openly and legally should not make us forget that the right respects the rules of the game only to the extent that they are convenient for them. To date, we do not see any experience in the world where the dominant groups are willing to renounce their privileges,” she wrote in 1999 (Haciendo posible lo imposible: la izquierda en el umbral del siglo XXI, p.351.) “What they will always try to block – and in this, no illusions – is any attempt to build an alternative society.”
Saint Oscar Romero, the slain archbishop of San Salvador, said something similar in 1979: “It’s natural that when the right feels that their economic privileges are being threatened, they will move heaven and earth in order to maintain their idol of wealth.“