Can the young Chilean president reinvent 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 legitimize his tenure by drafting a new constitution. In Santiago, Pinochet explained to me one day that the old constitution had weighed on his power. “You have to be able to fix the goal posts to be able to act!” he said. “So I put the goal posts.”

In 1988, Pinochet called a referendum, hoping to secure eight more years in power. This time he lost, but he didn’t fully retire. He retained command of the armed forces and had arranged to be appointed senator for life, with nine hand-picked associates. He had parliamentary immunity and, through an alliance with right-wing political parties, effective control of the legislature.

Pinochet’s hold on Chile loosened in 1998, with a surprise arrest. During his visit to the United Kingdom, the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón had him arrested for genocide, torture and terrorism. Pinochet was eventually allowed to return home, but he was diminished and spent the rest of his life fighting prosecution. In 2005, it was discovered that he had hidden millions of stolen public funds in over one hundred and twenty hidden bank accounts, with the help of the US-based Riggs Bank. When Pinochet died the following year, few Chileans mourned his passing.

After the death of his widow, Lucía Hiriart, last December at the age of ninety-eight, the streets of Santiago filled with crowds drinking champagne and shouting in celebration. A sign read “Chau vieja CTM ”—a slogan, abbreviating the local epithet concha tu madrewhich roughly translates to “Goodbye, old bitch”.

The day before Boric left for his island vacation, we met at the home of writer Patricio (Pato) Fernández, in the suburb of Providencia. Fifty-two years old, with the build of a teddy bear and an easy sense of humor, Fernández is a political commentator and the founder of The clinic, a satirical newspaper he launched to make fun of Pinochet. (The name refers to the British medical facility where Pinochet was recovering from back surgery when he was arrested.) Fernández’s article is generally progressive, but it doesn’t spare the left: memorable coverage depicts Nicolás Maduro, the stubborn ruler of Venezuela, with donkey ears, under the title “Nicholas Maburro.”

At Fernández’s, Boric wore his usual outfit of jeans, beat up boots and a plaid flannel shirt. He had brought pisco and Coca-Cola and periodically refilled a red plastic cup. He sent his presidential bodyguards to buy beef, 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 limping off to Chile after his ordeal in Antarctica. It was winter in Patagonia, and a cold wind was blowing outside as Boric and Fernández talked intently about Michelle Bachelet’s latest setbacks. Bachelet had staked her presidency on the promise of education reform, but she found herself embroiled in a scandal involving her son and a dodgy bank loan.

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

Since then, the pair had formed a close friendship, with Boric often coming to Fernández’s house for dinner or to play chess with his teenage son, León. When their conversations got delayed, Boric slept on the couch. These days, Fernández likes to tell visitors, “The president slept where you’re sitting.”

During the social estallido, the pair have been embroiled in the national debate over how to end the upheaval. In ‘Sobre la Marcha’, a book Fernández wrote about the protests, he argued for the Social Peace Agreement and a new Constitution, saying the process could help calm civil unrest in Chile and to remedy its endemic social inequalities, “so that having left the time of throwing stones, as Ecclesiastes once said, we may enter the time of gathering them together.

Boric’s party, Social Convergence, opposed the deal, seeing it as an obstacle to more fundamental reforms. But, Fernández recalls, “I strongly advocated for it. Although it was not a demand from street groups, it seemed that 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 was done. In Boric’s eyes, he had staked his political capital to get rid of “Pinochet’s constitution once and for all”.

Social convergence eventually took over Boric, but he retained a few enemies on the streets. Shortly after signing the deal, he was sitting in a park when a group of leftists began insulting him, accusing him of “selling out the people”. As they doused him with beer and spat on him, Boric sat and watched them quietly. His calm response was widely praised.

When the proposed new constitution was put to a referendum, it was overwhelmingly approved by seventy-eight percent of voters. A constitutional congress is elected: one hundred and fifty-five representatives, three-quarters of whom are left-wing or independent. They included Fernández, who had fled at the request of friends.

The conventional, as they are called, have had until July to draft a constitution, which they will put to a referendum in the fall. In a column after the presidential election, Fernández wrote: “Gabriel Boric knows perfectly well that the fate of his presidency is inextricably linked to that of this constitutional process”. But, like the conventional began to write proposals, the pragmatic spirit embodied by Boric often seemed absent. A Marxist veteran by the name of 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 “parasite characters” such as the top clergy, army and landlords. companies. An environmental commission has proposed special protections for mushrooms. A conventional, 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 never had.

Many unworkable proposals were rejected. But the media, especially on the right, presented a steady stream of news about the most bizarre ideas. If the Constitutional Congress failed, it would be disastrous for Boric’s government, potentially reviving his opponents on both the right and far left. Fernández wrote: “Success will require the construction of new forms of trust, of a cohesion acquired through new civilizing challenges and the complicity of various sectors of Chilean society”. He meant that Boric had to reunite a divided country before it collapsed.

Chile is known as one of the “poetic countries” of Latin America, the birthplace of Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral and Nicanor Parra. Another poetic country is Nicaragua, the homeland of Rubén Darío and also of Gioconda Belli, a poet and writer who was exiled for having strongly criticized the despotic leader of his country, Daniel Ortega. Boric invited Belli to represent Nicaragua during his swearing-in. The day after the ceremony, a lunch in her honor was held in the elegant apartment of writer Carla Guelfenbein.

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

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

For Boric, this kind of intrigue was only a small indicator of the geopolitical problems he might face. During one of our conversations, he confessed that he wished he had seen more people before he became president. He had made his first trip out of the region at the age of thirteen, traveling with his family to Disney World. He raised his hands and laughed embarrassed. At seventeen, he had lived four months in a village near Nancy, France, but had seen little of the countryside. It was shortly after the US invaded Iraq, and his host family was too worried about retaliatory terrorist attacks to allow him to visit Paris. Instead, Boric stayed close to the village and the father, an Algerian war veteran, regaled him with stories of throwing prisoners from helicopters. A few years later, Boric joins his parents for a Mediterranean tour, but he only gets a glimpse of Europe. “Rome, Prague, Cairo, Athens, one day each place,” he shrugs.

About Joan J. Hernandez

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