Without even considering the role of the ongoing pandemic, it’s been a difficult year politically for the progressive left in the United States and most of its close allies like Canada and the United Kingdom. While it helped to get leaders like Pramila Jayapal and Cori Bush on cable news networks where they could deliver their message to a wider audience, the failure of the Build Back Better Act to pass in the U.S. Senate this year, even in an already heavily watered down form, has been a huge disappointment for the growing Progressive Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, who would have been able to run on the needed strengthening it would have provided to the country’s tattered social safety net in 2022 and beyond.
More positively, the left is once again rising in Latin America, with new voices like Xiomora Castro in Honduras and Luis Arce in Bolivia winning power and showing the growing international clout of the Progressive International launched by Bernie Sanders, Yanis Varoufakis and others in late 2018 who provided some of the observers overseeing the vote. The group is important beyond this one election in pushing international solidarity in an era usually characterized as one of rising nationalism and rightwing populism.
Likely the most important victory for a progressive candidate in Latin America this year came in a December 19th runoff election in the country many consider the birthplace of neoliberalism: Chile, where Milton Friedman and others from what was then called the ‘Chicago School’ experimented with what was then thought of as an extreme form of laissez faire capitalism, in a sense creating the economic reality most of us live in.
Gabriel Boric, a former student leader, won Chile’s presidency with almost 56% of the vote but will still have to fight hard on the policy front, as he faces a Congress divided between those who will support him from the left and both centrists and conservatives who will try to stop him from enacting his progressive agenda.
Just as Castro’s win in Honduras was historic, making her the first woman to hold the position in her country, Boric, at 35, achieved another first, as he will be the country’s youngest ever president. He has rejected the social conservatism of older politicians, even many considered leftists, and has promised to work for the rights of the country’s LGBTQ communities and fight for women’s reproductive freedom. He has also promised to work for and with the country’s long suffering indigenous people and confront the climate crisis that they are on the front lines of.
It initially appeared that far right candidate Jose Antonio Kast, often referred to as ‘Chile’s Jair Bolsonaro’, who led by around 2% in the election held on November 21st with just under 29% of the vote, had an advantage in the runoff.
Kast rejected the country’s traditional conservative party, the UDI, to form his own Republican Party and staked out positions diametrically opposed to Boric’s on social justice issues. Likely sensing it would be difficult to win in a run off against just one opponent without courting the center right, Kast then tried to moderate his own image, but it seems he was too late to draw in voters with a stake in maintaining the small ‘c’ conservative status quo under the current president Sebastian Pinera, who will remain in office until Boric’s inauguration on March 11th.
Besides praise for the Pinochet dictatorship that ended in 1990 and familiar culture war themes, Kast also took a page from former U.S. President Donald Trump, railing against migrants from poorer countries like neighboring Bolivia and Peru.
As explained by Romina Ramos of Arturo Prat University to the Guardian prior to the runoff, “The far right have managed to weaponize migration in the run-up to the election. They are playing on fears of a threat to security and Chilean identity – and Kast has been able to present the arrivals as an invasion which must be fought off.”
Kast’s racist messaging failed in part because Boric was able to appeal to younger people, especially women, who turned out in record numbers for the runoff. To show how important they were to Boric’s win, it’s important to note that he won 68% of the vote of women under 30 compared to Kast’s 32%.
Boric’s electoral victory is also a direct consequence of massive protests that began in the country of 19 million in October 2019 over a rise in the cost of the public transport that most of the country’s urban working people rely on. The unrest led to a referendum and the election of a constitutional assembly representing the country’s diverse communities to craft a new constitution expected to replace the one passed by Pinochet in 1980. The new constitution, which has the potential to become a model for the whole region, will be decided on by voters in the country sometime in 2022.
At the same time, in order to have the support of the social movements that changed Chilean politics over the last few years, Boric will have to answer to them.
As Pamela Valenzuela of the March 8th Feminist Coordinator told Reuters last week, while Boric’s victory is cause for hope, the work of movements like hers will continue to pressure federal authorities in Santiago, “What we’ve achieved we owe to the mass struggle, to occupying public spaces, actively mobilizing. So it’s clear to us that we are going to continue mobilizing from a position of autonomy.”
As mentioned at the outset, Chile is often presented as a neoliberal success story but like many other countries in the global south presented in similar terms in the business press, the wealth is concentrated at the top, with the majority of the country’s people struggling to make ends meet on $550 or less a month.
While Boric has been careful to avoid seeming close to leaders in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua that are in the crosshairs of western powers, he may find himself with a powerful regional ally in Brazil if Lula Da Silva runs and wins election there in 2022. In terms of the bigger picture, barring coups and outside meddling, Latin America may see another ‘pink tide’ that brings even more progressive change than the one earlier in this century.