On every street in central Santiago, the face of Luisa Toledo, the mother of young revolutionaries killed during Pinochet’s dictatorship, stares down from fly-posters. Chile goes to the polls later this month with the far-right presidential candidate José Antonio Kast in the lead; Luisa Toledo, who died this summer, is a symbol of resistance. Chile’s free market democracy has been in terminal crisis for the past two years. The question is which part will die first: the free market or the democracy. In the autumn of 2019, students in Santiago began a campaign of civil disobedience against a thirty-peso hike in metro fares. Ticket barriers were destroyed; there was widespread rioting and looting. Across the country, three million people took to the streets, the biggest protest in Chile’s history. Toledo herself attended, gas mask in hand. ‘The social outburst comes as a scream that is heard everywhere,’ she said. ‘It is wonderful, like a resurrection.’
The 2019 uprising channelled the frustrations of Chileans who have been subjected to a regime of unstinting neoliberalism since the overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973. Almost everything that can be run by the private sector is run by the private sector. Keeping down wages and deregulating the economy has made some people rich; it has also put Chile close to the very bottom of the OECD inequality index, just above Costa Rica. Centre-left governments elected over the last twenty years have done little to change the economic model, largely because it is enshrined in law. The constitution of 1980, written by the military junta, is still in force. It holds up the family as ‘the fundamental nucleus of society’, criminalises ‘trade union leaders who intervene in political-partisan activities’ and guarantees the right of private companies to provide basic services. When the students set about destroying ticket barriers on the Santiago metro, their slogan was: ‘It’s not thirty pesos, it’s thirty years.’
The progressive candidate in this year’s presidential election – two points down after the first round of voting – is Gabriel Boric, one of the leaders of an earlier round of student protests. At 35, he would be the country’s youngest ever president. Boric represents the Broad Front, a coalition formed in 2017 to put forward an electoral alternative to the established centre-left coalition, the Concertación. His campaign catchphrase – ‘if Chile was neoliberalism’s birthplace, it will also be its grave’ – captures the spirit of its rainbow grouping of veterans of social movements, anti-capitalists, libertarian leftists and feminists. As one of its founders, Noah Titelman says, it is taking ‘a pragmatic approach to politics – it’s not just participating symbolically, it is playing to win.’ With an activist core among younger middle-class Chileans, the Broad Front is now in an alliance with the Communist Party, giving it a formidable base across Chilean society.
Every Friday night a ritual plays out on Santiago’s Plaza Baquedano. The surrounding streets fill with tear gas. Small bands of protesters attempt to reach the square, only to be repelled with batons and water cannons. Police charge around in vans, firing gas and water indiscriminately at anyone: protesters, tourists, delivery bike riders. But the body armour and weaponry on display are hardly proof of government strength. In 2019, 38 demonstrators were killed and thousands seriously injured, yet within a month Congress had agreed to hold a referendum on whether the constitution should be replaced. In the vote last year, 78 per cent said it should be. This May, an election was held to select the members of the Constitutional Convention, which is tasked with writing a new one. More than three-quarters of the seats were won either by the organised left or by pro-reform independents, and the assembly is the first of its kind in the world to be made up of equal numbers of men and women.
The feminist movement has been central to the renewal of progressive politics in Chile. Feminist demands – for greater access to abortion, proper childcare provision and an end to violence against women and girls – gave direction to the 2019 protests, with their insistence that the state should care most for those the economy most neglects. Chile’s current abortion laws are extremely restrictive – pregnancies can only be terminated in cases of rape or if the mother’s life is at risk – and activists hope that the new constitution will enshrine not only the right to choose but a ‘right to care’, lifting the burden on women. (‘It’s not love, it’s unpaid work,’ as the slogan goes.)
The protests and the outcome of the referendum have already transformed the political landscape in Chile, washing away the established centre left. In its place are people like the mayor of Valparaíso, Jorge Sharp, who is pursuing a radical municipalist agenda in which all residents of Chile’s third largest city are invited to have a say. And then there is Fabiola Campillai, who two years ago was on her way to work – a night shift at a food-processing plant – when she was hit by a police tear gas canister and permanently blinded. After the latest congressional elections she is now a senator. Emilia Schneider, who represents Santiago’s District Ten, is now Chile’s first trans member of Congress.
The Chilean Communist Party is the oldest and largest in Latin America. Traditionally constitutionalist and reformist, it has also been inescapably orthodox: it remained closely aligned to Moscow throughout the Cold War and its members are still banned from forming factions. But the party may be changing thanks to people like Camila Vallejo, a former student leader now in Congress, and Daniel Jadue, the mayor of Recoleta. When the party leadership released a statement congratulating Daniel Ortega on his re-election in Nicaragua last month – an embarrassment, given Ortega’s ruthless repression of the opposition – Vallejo and Jadue immediately dissented, as did the party’s youth wing. Comparisons with the Eurocommunist moment are tempting but not quite right: if anything, the party’s generational shift has moved it leftwards, away from its historic alliance with the Concertación and towards the Broad Front.
But Kast has been building a movement of his own. Since he last ran for the presidency, in 2017, he has assembled a coalition that stretches well beyond the traditional base of the far right, attracting evangelical Christians and anti-immigrant voters in the north as well as people outraged at the riots of recent years. His policies include a ban on abortion in all circumstances, the building of a ditch along Chile’s northern border to deter migrants, many from Venezuela or Haiti, and a promise to ‘co-ordinate with other Latin American governments to identify, arrest and prosecute radical agitators’. There is every chance he will use the power of the executive to restrict the Constitutional Convention.
The city of Calama, in the northern desert, is the centre of Chile’s mining industry. Huge numbers of migrants pass through here on their way south. Last week I spent an afternoon with Boric campaigners in the city’s astroturfed park. The music on the sound system was upbeat, but the mood was somewhere between fragile optimism and desperation. ‘Kast is a Nazi,’ Francisca Oliva, an environmental scientist, told me. ‘If he wins the results will be unimaginable – for the environment, for immigrants and for my rights as a woman.’
There are reasons for Kast’s appeal. The state’s refusal to guarantee social rights – from housing to health to utilities – means that basic services have been captured by the market, and a state of anxious individualism reigns, even on the left. Property ownership is a bigger issue here than anywhere else in Latin America. There is a large degree of electoral apathy: voter turnout is consistently less than 50 per cent, and when asked recently whether they identified with the left or right 70 per cent of Chileans said ‘neither’ or ‘I don’t know.’ The Chilean labour movement has been hollowed out by decades of persecution and anti-union laws, with the result that much of the new leadership on the left is drawn from a narrow middle-class elite. And if the ‘social explosion’ was motivated by anti-political sentiment, it’s a sentiment that can just as easily be exploited by the far right.
Kast, like many demagogues, takes the anti-establishment demand for change and redirects it, with social conservatism and promises of secure borders providing reassurance at a time of crumbling support for economic deregulation. What’s remarkable is that someone like Kast has been able to get so close to the presidency within living memory of Pinochet’s rule. The images of Luisa Toledo plastered on the walls of Santiago’s buildings stand for a popular frustration with a democracy which has failed to deliver justice for the victims of human rights abuses. Many supporters of the old regime remain in high office. The current minister for human rights is Hernán Larraín; in the 1990s he was a prominent defender of Paul Schäffer, the leader of an agricultural commune used as a torture centre by the dictatorship. Marcela Cubillos, education minister until recently, campaigned for Pinochet in 1988. Politicians made a conscious bargain to leave the past behind, but it’s clear now where such pragmatism leads.
The left faces a series of strategic dilemmas. A successful candidate will need to offer stability after years of upheaval and division, but there is an obvious tension between stability and the politics of radical change. It remains to be seen how far Boric will moderate his programme in the hope of winning over centrist voters. The young leaders of the Chilean left have to work out how to replace the establishment without becoming it. If Syriza’s experience in Greece has been anything to go by, winning the election will only be the first test.