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The Meaning of Gabriel Boric

For the future of both Chile and the world, it's hard to believe the president-elect signals anything good.

The situation in Chile is troubled, to say the least. Inflation is skyrocketing. Dependence on volatile foreign markets for economic security breeds intense disease at home. The working and middle classes are riled by animosity for the national elites, whose strangleholds on resources and political power have been used for decades recklessly or to personal advantage, if at all. Mostly, they’ve done nothing; after wresting control of the government from illiberal conservatives just a few decades ago, the new rulers have seen fit generally to let everything run its course. The ethos is summed up by a remark from the previous president, commenting on labor unrest: “There are only two kinds of problems: those that solve themselves and those that can’t be solved.”

In one way at least the strategy has backfired: Laissez-faire economics have simultaneously widened the gap between rich and poor, and empowered the poor enough that they present a real political threat to the overclass, virtually for the first time in the country’s history. The more-or-less moderate conservative president’s hostility to the labor movement has inspired the underclass to push a progressive reformer into the presidency. They have chosen as their champion a leftist palatable enough to moderates—a former law student who first made a name for himself as a vocal critic of the government while in school—whose populist approach and promise of “evolution to avoid revolution” have carried him through a razor-thin election. His vanquished opponent was cast as a radical reactionary, though he himself insisted that nothing in his program was outside the bounds of respectable, popular conservatism; he merely sought stability for the people of Chile where his challenger would sow disorder.

The year was 1920. Arturo Alessandri had just won the presidency by a single electoral vote. In the ensuing years it would become clear that the Italian immigrant’s son, “the Lion of Tarapacá,” had a funny idea of evolution. The Chilean Constitution, masterminded by the brilliant but complicated Diego Portales in 1833, would not survive his tenure. Briefly ousted in 1924, the president returned the next year and ushered in a new order, among whose principal reforms was the final and official secularization of the Chilean state—a long-awaited victory for the forces of liberalism.

In a cruel twist of fate, Alessandri’s own son, Jorge, would sound the death knell of the short-lived ’25 regime. In 1970, standing as the right-liberal candidate for the presidency, Jorge was defeated by Salvador Allende, the first out-and-out Marxist to be elected head of state anywhere in the Americas. (In 1958, the election had gone the other way, with Jorge narrowly edging out Allende, only to watch helplessly as the government and the country lurched leftward over his six-year term.) Allende pursued an ambitious socialist agenda, centered on the nationalization of Chile’s major industries. Among other problems, inflation quickly outstripped the crisis levels of a half-century before, reaching 150 percent by 1972. All the while, Allende tightened his grip—the concentration of power in the executive being (in Chile as elsewhere) a constant if ironic feature of the progress of liberalism.

Enter General Pinochet.

Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte was a career military officer, commissioned in Arturo Alessandri’s second administration. Chile had been engaged in no major conflicts in the intervening decades, and his service had been quiet, largely occupied by the study, formation, and teaching of doctrine. As general commander of the Santiago Army Garrison from 1971, Pinochet supervised the crackdown on protests against the socialist regime within the capital. In 1973, Allende named Pinochet commander-in-chief, a single day after the legislature censured the president for his dictatorial neglect of the rule of law.

A single month passed before a military coup replaced Allende with a four-man junta (the respective heads of the army, navy, air force, and national police) of which Pinochet, as the army’s representative, quickly consolidated control. What followed is remembered in official historiography as the darkest chapter of Chile’s history. Yet a right-wing minority has always maintained that Pinochet’s legacy should be regarded more even-handedly. After Allende nearly wiped out one of the strongest economies in Latin America in three years, Pinochet and his cadre of Chicago-educated economists pursued free-market reforms that brought the country back from the financial and political brink. Whatever his flaws, they say, General Pinochet—like General Franco on the other side of the Atlantic—defended his nation, historically free and Christian, against the communist threat.

This may well be true. But whatever else he was, Augusto Pinochet was a Freemason and a brute whose tenure entailed mass torture and political killings along with the necessary correctives to Salvador Allende’s socialist mismanagement. His great hero, whose portrait he kept framed in a place of honor, was Napoleon Bonaparte, against whose encroachment on the Spanish crown Chilean independence was declared in 1810.

This is not to say that Pinochet’s regime was without redeeming qualities. One of the principal architects of the post-Allende system was a professor of constitutional law named Jaime Guzman. Guzman was the chief theorist of a school of thought called gremialismo (guildism): inspired largely by Catholic social teaching; partly by the venerable Hispanic conservative tradition, Juan Vazquez de Mella in particular; and partly, later on, by the American Catholic right-liberal Michael Novak, from whose book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism Guzman extracted and focused the Wojtylian threads. He took a great deal of inspiration, too, from two Europeans of the previous generation, Friedrich Hayek and Carl Schmitt. His first political hero, interestingly, was Jorge Alessandri, for whose first campaign Guzman had volunteered when he was 12.

The regime collapsed in 1990, and the professor was assassinated by communist guerillas in April the following year. But gremialismo—the eclectic blend of traditional faith, conservative government, and liberal economics; a kind of Chilean fusionism—lived on. Founded by Guzman as a university student, gremialismo endured as a political force in the higher education system through the Pinochet years and well beyond them, forming Chile’s next generation of conservative leaders.

Among them was Jose Antonio Kast, who was introduced to the movement at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile as a student of law near the end of Guzman’s tenure. (Kast’s much older brother, Miguel, had been one of those aforementioned Chicago Boys, labor minister and president of the Central Bank of Chile.) Over the weekend, Kast lost handily the final round of Chile’s presidential election.

Kast has been much maligned as a “far-right former legislator,” though he rejects the label and no accuser has ever presented a very compelling case. (It is an unfortunate fact of history that his father belonged to the only political party in his home country during the 1940s, and a good deal of the criticism seems to have focused on the candidate’s German surname.) Kast opposes the slaughter of infants and the imitation of marriage by homosexuals; he rejects the climate fanaticism that would do to his country what three years of socialism almost did, and the waves of mass migration that could do worse. Even in the United States, where virtually no right wing exists, Kast would hardly be considered beyond the pale. A devout Catholic father of nine and heir to the tradition of gremialismo, Kast won the first round of the election this fall and was locked in a dead heat with his opponent in late polls.

It came as a surprise, then, when Gabriel Boric won the final round by nearly 12 percentage points. At just 35, the former student activist will be the youngest president in Chile’s history, and the second-youngest head of state in the world. It is illustrative and less than comforting that Boric—a childless, pudgy Peter Pan who doesn’t seem to own a single tie—should have toppled the polished and thoughtful patriarch of a massive Catholic brood. Boric has spent most of his career as an unabashed leftist with nothing but disdain for Chile’s recent history, but oscillated on the campaign trail between continuations of that thread and gestures toward moderation. How exactly he will govern—and which promises he’ll honor—remains to be seen, but Boric is already being heralded in the global press as a much-delayed successor to Salvador Allende.

History repeats itself—rhymes, at least—if only because the rupture in the last millennium cast us into modernity’s widening gyre. Neither right nor left could be faulted for fearing what follows this time around.