Gabriel Boric: the New “Popstar” of the Latin American Left

Gabriel Boric asume la presidencia de Chile el 11 de marzo. Ilustración Erick Retana

Chile’s Gabriel Boric’s presidential inauguration poses a question for Latin America: Has a new left arrived in the region?

By Cristian Ascencio Ojeda (Connectas)

HAVANA TIMES – In his debut as representative in 2014, Gabriel Boric refused to wear a tie, and in 2017 he got a mohawk hairstyle. In October 2019, in the demonstrations (known as Estallido Social), he confronted the military in the streets for using weapons of war and pleaded for the renovation of the Carabineros, the law enforcement police, for violating human rights. However, that did not stop protesters from insulting him and throwing beer at him in the demonstrations.

How can this reaction be explained? Boric had just signed the “Agreement for Peace” (Acuerdo por la paz) which paved the way to the referendum that voted yes to drafting a new constitution and that oxygenated the institutionality amidst the political crisis. That explains why some leftists considered him a traitor. They branded him an “amarillo” (yellow), a derogatory term used in Chile against those that are not “real reds.”

This did not stop him from, almost surprisingly, running as a candidate in the presidential primary against the number one in the polls at the moment, Daniel Jadue, a communist and the mayor of Recoleta. He began closing the gap and then overtook him. For many, he achieved this feat with one strategy: showing a more moderate side than his rival. Partly because of this, Boric will be inaugurated in the most important position of the Chilean government on March 11th.

Militant of a small party (Convergencia Social) with four representatives out of 155, and no senators, Gabriel Boric is a lawyer and also a fan of Universidad Catolica, the football team that is traditionally linked with the “cuicos” (upper class). Social-media savvy, he does not just talk politics, and he has been known to show support for singer Taylor Swift.

The youngest president in the history of Chile (he will take office at 36) is showing that, despite the protocol inherent in the position, he is willing to maintain some closeness with the streets. For instance, on a hot summer afternoon in January, he was spotted buying a sandwich at a popular restaurant in downtown Santiago. Someone uploaded a photograph on Twitter and the president-elect replied: “The homemade mayo of La Terraza (the restaurant’s name) is unbeatable.”

It is possible to monitor Boric’s political evolution on Twitter. For example, a decade ago, he was a fervent admirer of Venezuela’s Bolivarian process, but as years passed, he accentuated his criticism against its authoritarianism, until he completely broke away from Chavez and his successor, Nicolas Maduro.

From being a harsh critic of former president Michelle Bachelet, following the first presidential round, his discourse became moderate towards her and Concertacion, the coalition of political parties that ruled Chile from the moment in which the dictatorship ended.  Some considered this move as a strategy to gain the votes of the center, but the truth is it yielded positive results. He invited party members of the former Concertacion and a close friend of Bachelet to be part of his cabinet. He has moderated his public speech as well, from “renovating” the Carabineros he went to building more commissaries in marginal areas.

Something similar happened with the issue of the demonstrations’ prisoners. In October 2020, his political party presented a Pardon Bill for those that had been arrested for causes related to the protests. This didn’t stop one of the prisoners from punching him while he was visiting them in the jail in Santiago. Afterwards, he said: “We will continue working with our head held high for truth, justice and reparation, for the pardon of political prisoners, and for dignified and human conditions to prevail in Chilean jails.” But in November 2021, just before the second presidential round, Boric stated in a TV show that “a person who burnt down a church or a small business, or that plundered a supermarket cannot be pardoned.”

Regarding his political transformation, Mario Waissbluth, professor at Centro de Sistemas Publicos de la Universidad de Chile, asserts that “In the first presidential round, Gabriel Boric’s project was red and with a fist held high. But he radically mutated in the second presidential round and his project turned soft pink with the sign of both hands coming together in front of the chest, repeated several times on the screen, and with a rather social democratic take.”

A New Mujica?

Boric’s criticism against authoritarian governments, albeit leftist, his promise of “gradual change”, as well as his closeness with the streets (while in office, he will live in the Yungay neighborhood, in a middle class sector), remind analysts of former Uruguayan president Jose Mujica’s moderate persona.

Jeanne Simon, a US political scientist and professor at la Universidad de Concepcion, believes Boric is part of a “middle class and globalized left. In contrast with the left of the 20th century, it is sensitive to issues of gender, sexual diversity and plurinationality; a democratic trend, as opposed to a populist trend.”

According to Simon, Boric is critical of the concentration of economic power and of neoliberalism, but he acknowledges the importance of a regulated economy. “He resembles figures such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the United States and José Mujica in Uruguay. He believes in a more present State that supports citizens.”

Economist Noam Titelman, one of the founders of Frente Amplio (Gabriel Boric’s party’s coalition), stresses that point. “The president-elect has often mentioned the legacy of Pepe Mujica. The former Uruguayan president even had an important role in Boric’s campaign, and he cited him in his victory speech, referring to change needing to take place step by step in order not to fall over a precipice.”

Per Titelman, Boric has shown that it is possible to defend a heavily progressive programmatic belief, while upholding a commitment with democracy. “Cleansed of historical burdens, Boric has been able to introduce a left for the 21st century in which the feminist and environmental agenda plays a key role.

The truth is that Gabriel Boric is in his honeymoon phase with Chileans, who broadly support him. Yet the risk of high expectations turning into frustration is latent if he doesn’t fulfill his promises, especially in this complex moment of heavy tax load due to the pandemic, among other factors. “Along with the high expectations, a new group of young leaders with relatively little experience in the State are now part of the government. Both things certainly entail a frustration risk. Mostly pertaining to tax accounts with insufficient means and with a very low growth projection in the upcoming years,” Titelman explains.

This is perhaps one of his greatest challenges, reconciling expectations of those who ask for radical changes and for the country’s rebirth, inspired in the Estallido Social of 2019; and those who agree on the need to build a more equitable country but that despise an omnipotent State apparatus or that consider Chile’s economic opening to be positive.

And the Latin American Context?

But what will Boric’s role be in an increasingly polarized Latin America, now more than ever with the global turmoil of the Russian of Ukraine? Titelman thinks this particular project is hard to extend to the rest of the region, “because the reality is that we are a tremendously diverse region, and copies and reproductions seldom work. Nevertheless, I believe there is room for the idea of a left that wants deep transformation and is not willing to give an inch in terms of the respect for democracy and its control institutions and counterweights, which prevent the authoritarian deflections of Venezuela and Nicaragua”.

In any case, in the words of Angel Arellano, project coordinator at Fundacion Konrad Adenauer, based in Uruguay, Gabriel Boric has become a center-left reference in Latin America. “And he is the reference of a democratic left, with the understanding that there are also authoritarian and populist left-wings in the region.” Arellano explains that this new leftist wave is characterized for being more moderate and pragmatic. “They have more respect for the democratic game’s frameworks.”

Asked if Gabriel Boric would like to project himself as a reference of progressivism in the region, Titelman said that “partly, his leadership is characterized precisely for avoiding extremely hierarchical visions and messianism that are usually plentiful in the left. Personally, I think he honestly does not want to. Whether or not he ends up being a reference is not up to him.”

Read more from Chile here on Havana Times.