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Chile’s president could be a new model for the left

Gabriel Boric, 36, aims to move Latin America beyond the stifling Leninism that has plagued Cuba and Nicaragua.

Chile's new president, Gabriel Boric, rolled up his sleeves at a press conference on March 14.Esteban Felix/Associated Press

Looking for some good news in today’s conflict-torn world? It’s coming from near Antarctica — specifically, from the extreme south of Chile. That region produced a bearded, tattooed firebrand who has just been inaugurated as his country’s youngest-ever president. Half a century after the United States promoted the overthrow of President Salvador Allende, the Chilean wheel has turned full circle.

“As Salvador Allende predicted nearly 50 years ago, we are once again opening the wide avenues along which free men and women can march toward a better society,” the new president said in his inaugural speech this month. In case anyone missed the point, he named Allende’s granddaughter minister of defense. She now oversees the army that overthrew her grandfather.

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President Gabriel Boric, 36, represents more than simply the reconsolidation of progressive Chilean democracy. He also personifies a new kind of leftist leadership that could be a model for Latin America and beyond.

Boric emerged a decade ago as a student leader. He helped guide nationwide protests against government policies that many saw as favoring the rich. In 2013, as the protests reached a peak, he was elected to Congress from the country’s southernmost province, the Magallanes and Chilean Antarctic Region. His dizzying rise to the presidency was propelled by a coalition of students, environmentalists, feminists, Indigenous people, and others who have been left behind by past governments. The cabinet he named after taking office is majority female and includes the country’s first openly gay ministers.

Most important, he is committed to the institutions of electoral democracy and categorically rejects the use of force or violence as political tools. That is a quantum leap from the left-revolutionary dogma that embraced Leninist concepts like the “vanguard party” that imposes its will and crushes opponents.

Chile is a logical birthplace for this new approach to politics and government. It has the richest democratic tradition of any Latin American country. In the 140 years after its constitution was proclaimed in 1833, the legal order was interrupted only three times, for brief periods. Then came the catastrophe of the 1973 coup against Allende, a socialist who nationalized the copper industry that is at the heart of Chile’s economy. “No impression should be permitted in Latin America that they can get away with this,” President Nixon told his National Security Council as he ordered Allende’s overthrow.

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That coup led to Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship, during which tens of thousands of Chileans were arrested and tortured. Democracy has been slowly rebuilt, but neoliberal economic policies that were imposed during the dictatorship helped create a society in which 1 percent of the population controls more than one-fourth of the country’s wealth. Boric’s predecessor was a billionaire. Boric could not be more different.

In his inaugural speech, Boric promised to “leave behind once and for all the patriarchal inheritance of our society.” Even more arresting was his repeated emphasis on pluralism and democracy — hardly the principles of old-style leftist regimes like those in Cuba and Venezuela. He said he would “always listen to proposals from those who think differently”; pledged to follow “the path of dialogue, peace, law, and empathy for all victims”; and urged Chileans “not to see each other as enemies but to reunite with ourselves and each other.” In world affairs, his main focus has been advocacy of Palestinian rights; he has called Israel a “murderous state.”

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Nearly a dozen Latin American presidents and prime ministers attended Boric’s inauguration. The United States sent an insultingly low-level delegation headed by the administrator of the Small Business Administration.

Perhaps most significant were the Nicaraguans that Boric did and did not invite. President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua is a poster boy for the moral collapse of what was once considered leftism in Latin America. He spouts anti-imperialist rhetoric while ordering the killing of protesters and jailing all who criticize his corrupt rule. Boric not only refused to invite him but invited two of his most outspoken critics, both of whom would be immediately arrested if they dared to return home. One of them, the poet and novelist Gioconda Belli, had been a fervent Sandinista revolutionary during the 1970s and ’80s but said during her visit to Chile that revolutionary governments like the one in Nicaragua have created little but “destruction and polarization.”

“Boric represents the new left I’ve been dreaming of for a long time, a new paradigm for the world,” Belli told a Chilean interviewer. “I have completely lost all of the Leninism I once had, and have come to believe that in revolution, social justice is essential. This is the most important principle of the left — but it has to be inclusive and democratic. There must be freedom.”

Two other South American countries, Bolivia and Uruguay, have already embraced the democratic leftism that Boric preaches. Brazil and Colombia may elect leaders of the same bent later this year. If they do, Boric mused after his election, “a tremendously interesting axis can be put together.”

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Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.