After becoming Chile's youngest president in December's elections, former student activist and socialist Gabriel Boric has disappointed his most radical voters. Will they prolong the social unrest and creative chaos that have smashed the country's fame as a conservative backwater?
BOGOTÁ — I've been following Chile closely. While the country has South America's best social and economic indicators, and was supposedly a model to follow, it has suffered a political event not unlike the earthquakes so common to that land. And all in just three years.
Let's start with something Chile considered as solved since the restoration of democracy in 1990: violence or irrational destruction. Admittedly there were still active guerrilla groups like the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front, close to the Communist Party, and the MIR (also Marxists), but Chileans generally reacted with measure to crises.
This calm lasted three decades to late 2019, when society 'exploded' — apparently over a modest rise in public transport fares — and threw everything into the bin. Since then, this reputedly placid people seems to have upended its behavior: burning the Santiago metro or trucks, looting shops and department stores, attacking passers-by, taking knives to school ... and a good many public bodies consider all this normal and say it "wouldn't help" to suppress violent elements.
Amid this social bellicosity, the country pushed through at least 10 big political changes.
On the one hand, the last, conservative president, Sebastián Piñera, called elections for a constituent assembly with powers to draft a new constitution. The election's winners were a motley bunch of left-wing, civilian and activist formations.
After that, Gabriel Boric, a young, long-time activist, was elected president in a two-round vote. Problem solved? Not even remotely: the elections have in fact given all power to the god of fantasies.
Perhaps because Boric did not immediately hand the country over to his most radical voters, they immediately joined the Right to lambast him in chorus. As several polls have shown, disapproval of the president has become the norm.
Extremists are now giving what is clearly a socialist president the treatment they gave his conservative predecessor, Piñera. Will they give him the benefit of the doubt for a honeymoon period at least? Nyet. But a president without prestige is certainly an inefficient — and at times impotent — president.
Hanging up a portrait of President Boric in Santiago, Chile
Escaping the Pinochet past
What about the constituent assembly?
The youthful, post-modern extremists who have taken over that body are producing some problematic, if not impossible legislative proposals. Nobody seems to have told them that the rules included a stark condition: that the resulting text must be approved in a plebiscite on September 4.
If most voters reject the proposed constitutional text, the constitution of 1980, a legacy of General Augusto Pinochet, would be in force again. That would more or less spell the end of the Boric presidency, even if he stays in office another four years. And polls seem to be saying most voters will pick Reject, not Approve. You wonder: didn't these impetuous constitutionalists know that a constitution is not a party program and must meet the needs of the vast majority of citizens?
Most of the problems are happening in the Macrozona Sur, a territory including several southern regions, where attacks have multiplied since Boric was elected, and evidently after he lifted the state of exception in force there. Twenty five public vehicles were destroyed in recent days. The Mapuche indigenous people are the heart of a big headache here.
The president and constituent legislators have not yet lost the battle it seems, but are walking a tightrope. It's a shame, for it would be nice for these experiments to work out.