The recent electoral victory of a youthful leftist in Chile has inspired the left in Latin America and around the world. But the country's unique political and economic history means it is not necessarily a model for the rest of the world.
BUENOS AIRES —The "Chilean model" is back in vogue, following the left's recent electoral triumph in that country. The election in December of the youthful Gabriel Boric has inspired the left worldwide and positively fired up Latin America's socialists. It's all smiles and hugs right now.
We'd forgotten about the heroic Chile of our youth! The fighting Chile of folk singers Inti-Illimani and mythical songs like El Pueblo Unido ("The People United"). Shall we return to the proletarian trenches? Impervious to ridicule, some have even hailed the fall of "fascism." Are they right, or will it turn into a big mess?
The triumphalism is understandable. Chile still hurts from its past — the wounds of Augusto Pinochet's right-wing authoritarian military dictatorship have yet to heal. History takes unexpected turns. Great trauma always has consequences down the line, and their heirs of victims of injustice will always fight for vindication.
Indeed, one of the stupidities of dictatorships is their inability to imagine the future consequences of their abuses. It happened in Argentina, and it is happening in Chile. One only hopes Boric will not follow the footsteps of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her husband Néstor Kirchner in Argentina and mistake his victory as a mandate for revenge. Hopefully, he will not confuse the "narrative" with reality and memory with history, because he would then reap the same results — a clash of ardent devotion, hatred and polarization.
That being said, following the Chilean model never did anyone any good — including the Chileans. The country is not jinxed, just unique. Chile is too distinct a country to be a model for its neighbors. It has a unique historical mix of authoritarian conservatism and solid parliamentary traditions, Prussian militarism, Basque and British influences, geographical isolation, a separation of Church and State, a constitutional makeup from 1925 and the inexplicable ability of its institutions to thwart and absorb populism.
With the return of democracy, Chile's governments kept the Pinochet recipe
U.S. President John F. Kennedy thought Chile seemed to be the perfect shopfront for his Alliance for Progress. The United States had many anti-communist allies then, some of which were even reformist, though none really popular. Chile's fresh, youthful Christian Democrats seemed to fit that bill, as did their leader, Eduardo Frei, a Catholic like Kennedy, with impeccable "Christian Democratic" traits. Kennedy did not live to see Frei's triumph nor his sad end, or the victory of the socialist Salvador Allende, who was the opposite of what he wanted. Goodbye model; the pretty shopfront window was smashed.
Gabriel Boric after beating his adversary Jose Antonio Kast in December 2021
The Allende model
Salvador Allende, the Marxist president of Chile from 1970-1973, provided a subsequent model, though more so in Europe, where socialism had warmed to democracy, than in Latin America, where it still reeked of armed revolution. Allende became the source of a very big misunderstanding.
The Europeans insisted on seeing a social democrat in him, while the Latin American left, with its revolutionary goals, thought he must be "biding his time." Even the Soviets were puzzled: who was he?
Cuba's Fidel Castro warned him not to take the electoral path to socialism, as it could lead to his downfall. And it did. As the furious middle class came out banging pots and pans, with a flourishing black market, infighting among Allende's allies and his opponents uniting against him, Allende's shopfront shattered long before the 1973 coup.
Is it a new start or a return to the sources?
His successor, General Augusto Pinochet, also became a model. He was the first leader to forcefully end the state-centered system and impose liberal economic reforms.
The idea was to make the productive system more efficient and place Chile in an incipient process of globalization. It wasn't entirely senseless. Like it or not, 20 years after the coup, other regional countries followed that model, mired as they were in inflationary crises and chronic inefficiencies.
With the return of democracy, Chile's governments kept the Pinochet recipe and the country grew at a constant and sustained rate, reducing poverty in leaps and bounds. I believe, going against the currently emotive spirit of discontent and recriminations, that the 20 years that followed the junta regime will in time be seen as a Belle époque, not unlike the 30 years of booming growth that followed the Second World War in Europe, which its youth sought to wipe out in the 1970s.
What to expect from the new government
Nothing is permanent, of course. Expectations grow, generations change, and what was good yesterday is insufficient today. Which brings us to the "new Chilean model" some are spotting on the horizon.
It has young leaders, a radical discourse, new rights and movements, and new subjects. Is it a new start or a return to the sources? Is it a bid to mend what was broken in 1973? I doubt Chile's new rulers are clear on any of these questions, and their fans abroad who are rubbing their hands in glee are probably less so. They are confusing the presidential palace in Santiago with the Winter Palace, and Chile's youth with the youth of other countries.
Anyone who wants to be a model had better be ready to clean up the mess
What should we expect? For the historian, nothing is totally new nor are there identical repetitions in history. Expect some strong gestures, symbolic measures and ambitious reforms, which will not be as radical as many hope. Chile isn't what it used to be, and ruling isn't the same as protesting.
I think the rules of democracy will impose themselves, and the plurality of ideas will curb revolutionary ardor. The country's youthful rulers will not be so silly as to throw out baby prosperity with the bathwater. I doubt the virus of populism will find a home here.
So I say welcome to the endless disappointments and constant "betrayals" of the "revolution." No new model means no more broken glass. Anyone who wants to be a model had better be ready to clean up the mess.
*Zanatta is a historian and lecturer at the University of Bologna campus in Argentina.