This article is adapted from AQ’s print issue on youth in Latin America.
Gabriel Boric’s first day as a congressman was anything but boring.
Age just 28, he showed up with a scraggly beard, a beige trench coat and an open dress shirt with no tie — causing an instant uproar in the most buttoned-up sanctuary of Latin America’s most buttoned-up country. A fellow legislator accused him of violating decorum, and asked the chamber’s president to intervene. “I could care less,” Boric replied. “I want people to judge me for my work and convictions, not my fashion sense.”
Chilean television and social media went absolutely crazy — as Boric surely knew they would. A former leader of student protests that grabbed worldwide headlines in 2011 with their “kiss-ins” and clashes with riot police, he was an experienced provocateur. But the incident also raised an intriguing question: Would Boric and three other 20-something protesters who successfully ran for Chile’s Congress in 2013 — Giorgio Jackson, Camila Vallejo and Karol Cariola — be able to make the transition from flash-mob activism to roll calls and committee hearings.
Now 31, Boric still doesn’t wear a tie, but he has gained a respect for many of his peers. “There are people who think legislators don’t work,” he told AQ recently over coffee in the congressional cafeteria. “I mean, there must be some who do nothing. But the majority really work hard.” His authentic, thoughtful demeanor and his own work ethic — he has attended 92 percent of legislative sessions — have stood out in a chamber that, like others around the world, is seen as out-of-touch, bound by silly rules, and for sale to the highest bidder. The result: Boric is now the second-most popular politician in Chile, with an approval rating of 45 percent. Jackson, his 30-year-old peer, is right behind him at 41 percent.
At the same time, Boric admits the job has been “exhausting.” Much of his agenda, such as a bill that would have cut legislators’ salaries (including his own), has foundered. Serving in Congress can be “like attending a Mass without God,” he said, in that “you observe all these rituals, but the power is elsewhere. … You’re constantly reminding yourself why you’re here.”
As Boric left to go vote, I noticed an elderly waiter in a vest and bowtie watching him carefully. “What do you think of that guy?” I asked once Boric was out of earshot, expecting a caustic response. But the answer surprised me: “Very good to have young people!” he chirped, smiling.
“This place, it needs new blood.” Yes, even the waiter in the congressional cafeteria gets it: Latin American politics desperately needs a youth movement.
A graying generation
There was a period in the late 1980s and early 90s, as much of the region emerged from Cold War-era dictatorships, when most presidents were in their 40s and 50s. But in much of Latin America, that same generation still dominates politics today. Among democratically elected leaders, Peru’s Pedro Pablo Kuczynski is the elder statesman at age 78, though he’s hardly alone: Uruguay’s Tabaré Vázquez (77), Brazil’s Michel Temer (76), Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos (65) and Chile’s Michelle Bachelet (65) could all legally retire in their countries. Look at legislatures, and the hairlines are only slightly lower. The average age in Chile’s Congress is about 50, even after accounting for Boric and his cohort. It’s even worse in Brasília, where just a quarter of legislators are younger than 45. This in a region where the median age is about 30.
The age gap wouldn’t necessarily be a problem; Kuczynski is proof that an older leader can have a modern mentality. But consider that none of the presidents cited above has an approval rating above 28 percent. Only 6 percent of Chileans have a positive view of their Congress; in Brazil, it’s 3 percent. This suggests a disconnect that is at least partly generational in nature, and speaks to a broader hunger for renewal. Indeed, in the wake of France’s recent elections, many in the region are jealously asking: Where is Latin America’s Emmanuel Macron? Where are the young, modern leaders who can bring the region’s politics fully into the 21st century?
“A figure who is sensible, articulate, cultured, open to the world, with a tremendous ability to argue … suddenly, all of us are looking for someone (like Macron),” wrote Valeria Moy, a prominent Mexican intellectual, in a recent column for El Financiero. Some have put forth names: The Colombian website Las 2 orillas recently compared Iván Duque, a senator and likely presidential candidate in 2018, to Macron — both are 39-year-old centrists. Mexican opposition leader Ricardo Anaya, 38, has garnered similar comparisons, while the region’s closest proxy might be María Eugenia Vidal, the charismatic 43-year-old governor of Argentina’s Buenos Aires province. But none of them have yet broken through to the top job, and they remain exceptions to the rule.
To better understand how a generational sea change might happen, I traveled to Chile in June — under the assumption it would be fertile ground for such a shift. After all, it already had a prominent group of feisty young politicians, and general elections scheduled for November.
Perhaps inevitably, what I found was more complicated. The two leading candidates were a 67-year-old former president and a 64-year-old former television anchor. Another former president, 79, had just dropped out of the race. When I asked Jaime Parada, a young city councilman in the capital, about the relative absence of fresh faces, he started laughing. “We suffer in Chile from a kind of gerontophilia — not sexual, but political,” Parada said. “But we’re not alone in this. You see it a lot of places.”
In fact, Chile ended up having more in common with the rest of the region than I anticipated. It also offered a note of caution: Those yearning for a youth revolution might want to be careful what they wish for.
A haven for growth
Arriving in Chile from elsewhere in Latin America can feel like landing on Mars: It’s arid, freezing cold, eerily quiet, and looks utterly unlike its neighbors. New tunnels, bus and train lines wind throughout Greater Santiago. Gleaming office towers and apartment blocks are seemingly everywhere. Yes, there are problems: Traffic is bad, crime is up and, outside of wealthy enclaves like Providencia and Las Condes, a working-class majority struggles with a daily grind. But even in La Florida, an often gritty satellite city of 360,000 where I spent a day, people spoke of their futures in a hopeful way that you just don’t hear on the outskirts of São Paulo or Mexico City.
“Expectations are incredibly high,” said Patricio Navia, a political science professor and columnist who divides his time between Santiago and New York. “People compare their lives not to Portugal and Spain, but to Denmark and Sweden.”
What about Argentina and Brazil? I asked.
“Oh,” Navia said casually, “people believe we left Latin America behind long ago.”
One oft-heard narrative holds that Chile’s pro-business, “neoliberal” economic model, adopted in the 1980s under dictator Augusto Pinochet and broadly sustained by democratic governments ever since, has only benefited the rich. That is simply not true. From 1990 to 2013, poverty fell from 38.6 percent to 7.8 percent. Social indicators also improved, and life expectancy is now South America’s highest at 79.1 years. As the middle class grew, the number of students enrolled in post-secondary education ballooned from 250,000 to 1.2 million. One testament to Chile’s appeal is the vast number of recent immigrants from Venezuela, Haiti, Colombia and elsewhere. At the restaurant where I met Navia, both waitresses were Argentine. “You can create a life here without worrying about who’s president,” one told me. “I’m never going back.”
Nevertheless, by the early 2010s, many Chileans were speaking of a “malaise.” Focus turned to inequality, which despite a modest improvement during the 2000s remains very high. A series of corruption scandals challenged Chile’s self-image as the region’s cleanest country. Meanwhile, economic growth, which averaged 5.5 percent from 1984 to 2009, has barely cracked 2 percent in recent years. Whether this is the result of the global recession, falling prices for copper and other Chilean commodities, or bad domestic policy decisions is open to debate. But the impact on the public mood was clear.
“People feel their situation is fragile,” Harald Beyer, director of the Center for Public Studies, a prominent pollster and think-tank, told me. “Some want the government to do more to protect them.”
That was the gap that the former student protesters of 2011 have tried to occupy in Congress and elsewhere. Having originally demonstrated in favor of free university tuition, they are now pushing for broader education reform, abolishing Chile’s privately run pension system, and a charter to replace the 1980 Constitution, which dates from the dictatorship. Camila Vallejo, whom the New York Times famously called “the world’s most glamorous revolutionary” in 2012, and at age 29 now serves in the Chamber of Deputies as a member of the Communist Party, told me her generation is not encumbered by Pinochet-era taboos.
“We live in a kind of apartheid, with one nation but two systems,” she said, citing education and health care as examples and slamming Chile’s commodities-dependent, “extractivist” economic model. “We need big changes.”
Vallejo with President Michelle Bachelet
I asked Vallejo, who unlike the other former students is part of President Bachelet’s ruling coalition: Why overhaul an economy that has, on balance, lifted most if not all boats over the past quarter-century? “It’s true that we’re not an African country, with hunger,” she replied. “But we don’t get happiness just because there’s a good macroeconomic performance.” In this line of thought, she is not alone: Boric told me his long-term goal is a “country without classes.”
“We’ve awakened a monster”
This raises an obvious question: Will the next generation of leaders more closely resemble Emmanuel Macron — or Bernie Sanders?
Many Chileans played down the possibility of a hard shift — socialist or otherwise. “Voters don’t think the country’s on the wrong track. They just want to get to the promised land faster,” Navia, the professor, told me. This was echoed by Parada, the city councilman, who leans left but is critical of Boric and some others for espousing “unrealistic” policies. “That’s why they don’t have the trajectory of a Macron,” Parada added. He and others pointed to the two relatively moderate frontrunners for the presidency: Alejandro Guillier, an independent leftist, and Sebastian Piñera, a center-right billionaire who was president from 2010 to 2014. Neither is expected to make dramatic changes.
But some were less sanguine, citing the legislators’ extreme popularity in a system where traditional political parties now enjoy just 6 percent approval. They are “already setting the agenda,” having successfully pushed President Bachelet to the left on issues like education, said Rodrigo Cerda, a professor at Santiago’s Catholic University. Protests have continued to rage on many campuses, and even at malls. While there are a few prominent young leaders on the center and right, such as congressman Felipe Kast, 40, they haven’t kindled the same enthusiasm. Rodolfo Carter, the 46-year-old right-wing mayor of La Florida, said he recently warned Piñera that if he wins the election but fails as president, “These radicals will succeed you.”
“They don’t understand that the system, with all its weaknesses, is better than what we had before,” Carter told me. “We’ve awakened a monster, raising society’s expectations to include things we cannot afford.” I wondered aloud if the 20-somethings might moderate their views with age, citing the example of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the one-time Marxist sociology professor who as Brazil’s president in the 1990s oversaw sweeping free-market reforms. “I don’t see a Cardoso in that group,” Carter retorted. “And why should we suffer while they learn?”
Before departing Chile, I met with Ricardo Lagos. A highly successful center-left president from 2000 to 2006, he had just abandoned a new bid for office at age 79 after failing to register much support in polls. Unopened cardboard boxes containing his platform were scattered around the lobby, next to medals and framed honorary degrees.
I asked Lagos what he expected from the next generation of Chileans.
“Well,” he said slowly, “I don’t know if they’ll want a Macron — or a Trump.”
My eyes must have almost exploded, because Lagos quickly backpedaled. “But no, no, I don’t think so,” he continued. “The issue here is inequality, as it always was. And it’s easier to take people out of poverty than it is to satisfy the middle class.
“That’s what we are now. That’s the challenge,” he said. “It will fall to new faces.”
Winter is the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly. He spent a decade living in Latin America as a correspondent for Reuters, and is the author of four books about the region. Like Macron, he is 39.