The Americas Society and the Council of the Americas, the sister organizations that publish AQ, are based in a grand 1910s-era townhouse on Park Avenue in New York. The space is dominated by Italian marble and winding staircases; there is an original Botero, of Christ in a crown of thorns, and gilt-framed mirrors on the walls. All this contributes to a formal vibe, with dark suits and ties often the rule.
So I can say with some confidence that when we hosted Gabriel Boric for a small breakfast in 2018, he was the first guest of honor ever to show up in a black Nirvana T-shirt and jeans. A photo of the two of us is above.
Was I surprised? Not in the slightest. I had first met Boric a few months earlier in the cafeteria of Chile’s Congress, for an article about a group of twenty-something former student protest leaders who had taken the unusual decision of running for public office. On his first day in Congress, Boric wore a trench coat and a shirt with no tie – earning howls of protest from more senior legislators. “I could care less,” he told reporters at the time. “I want people to judge me for my work and convictions, not my fashion sense.” But in person, Boric didn’t strike me as some fire-breathing provocateur – he was sensitive, humble, and above all a superb listener, as he expressed respect for how unexpectedly “exhausting” legislative work had proven to be. We got along well, and have maintained a warm, mostly WhatsApp-based relationship in the years since.
Boric will now face one of the more challenging presidencies in recent Latin American history after winning Sunday’s election by a larger than expected 11-point margin. At the age of 35, he symbolizes a younger generation of Chileans who desperately want to live in a country more like Sweden or France, but don’t seem totally certain how to get there. Whether he can manage the stratospheric expectations aroused by the protest movement of recent years, and oversee the passage of a new Constitution that guarantees a stronger welfare state, without completely alienating the establishment or snuffing out the economic dynamism that made Chile an imperfect success story over the last three decades, is unclear to everyone – including, I suspect, Boric himself. But I have a few stories and observations that may help begin to fill in the picture.
The first has to do with Boric’s fashion choices, and what deeper truths they may reveal about his evolution in recent months. When he arrived at AS/COA wearing that T-shirt back in 2018, he seemed a tad surprised by the decor – and asked who would be at the breakfast. A mix of business leaders, academics and civil society, I replied. “Ah, people from the (ideological) right,” he said, his eyes narrowing a bit. Some of them, I allowed, but they’re here to listen. And indeed, over the next 90 minutes, we had a relaxed, lively discussion. “That was good,” Boric declared as he left. “The businesspeople here aren’t like the ones in Chile.”
That kind of us-versus-them worldview is pretty typical in Chile – and has been in some ways the essence of Boric’s appeal. The protests that shook the country starting in 2019 amounted to a full-throated demand that Chile’s notoriously insular, historically undemocratic elite share their privileges, and pay significantly more in taxes. With statements such as “If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave,” and, yes, his tattoos and decidedly non-conformist wardrobe, Boric aligned himself fully with these cries for profound change. But as the campaign progressed, especially during the second round, Boric also seemed to realize that he couldn’t win without at least some establishment support. He sought backing from old-school politicians like Michelle Bachelet and Chile’s Christian Democrats, to whom he, notably, apologized for his party’s previous “generational arrogance.” He also changed his dress – still shunning ties, but adopting dark suits and dress shirts, in a clear play to a more conservative crowd.
So what? Does it actually mean anything? Yes, I think so. Boric’s campaign revised its economic platform multiple times in recent months as it brought on advisers like Lucia Dammert and Eduardo Engel, one of Chile’s most respected center-left economists. My own feeling is that, like many millennial progressives in Europe and the United States, Boric is personally more interested in issues like climate change, gender equality and the rights of indigenous people than the classic redistributive questions that impassioned the 20th century left. Boric has also seemed unusually aware of, and candid about, what he does not know — he told us in 2018 that he hoped to one day study economics at a university abroad. This suggests he will hire, and listen to, smart advisers. But whether he can overcome his reflexive distrust of the business class – and their distrust of him – is an open question. After watching billions of dollars flow out of Chile in recent months, sending the peso almost 20% lower, and the stock market plunge another 10% on Monday following his victory, I’m not sure the country can succeed unless they reach some kind of understanding, and soon.
In other areas, I’m more optimistic. The comparisons some on the right have made between Boric and leftist authoritarians like Nicolás Maduro are absurd – in fact, Boric called Nicaragua’s recent sham elections a “farce,” expressed support for Cuba’s dissidents, and publicly “invited” his hard-left coalition partners to reconsider their more accommodating stance. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve heard some draw similarities with Latin America’s other bearded, ballcap-wearing millennial president, Nayib Bukele. But I haven’t seen anything remotely messianical about Boric, who emphasizes words like “dialogue” and “consensus” that don’t even seem to be in the El Salvadoran leader’s vocabulary. Chile’s tradition as one of Latin America’s strongest democracies, reaffirmed again on Sunday, is in safe hands.
Will Boric succeed?
To be honest, I’m not sure anyone can. Chile’s next president will have to meet society’s demands for a more Scandinavian-style state, without scaring off the big capital and investments needed to pay for it. He will have to preserve some aspects of the economic model that not only allowed Chile’s economy to grow but gave it the region’s best record of poverty reduction and social indicators over the past 30 years, while also creating a new pension system and providing more affordable education and healthcare. He will have to placate extremist coalition partners (including actual Communists) and an often violent ongoing protest movement, while working with a constitutional assembly that is further left than Chilean society at-large. My sense is that Boric’s unexpectedly large margin of victory Sunday may prove to be a negative, reducing the pressure on him and others to seek common ground. But I, along with millions of others, listened to his hopeful victory speech Sunday night, and heard his vows to embrace inclusion, fiscal responsibility, and a vow “to go forward with small steps, but firm ones, learning from our history.”
“Know that, with me, you will find a president open to listening and incorporating different visions, and who will also be receptive to constructive criticism that helps us improve,” he declared to an adoring crowd. “I receive this mandate with humility.”
That sounded like the Gabriel Boric I know and admire. I wish him well.
Tags: Chile, Gabriel Boric