Gabriel Boric promises sweeping social change. In a nation of duelling political extremes, he’ll need to sell his vision not just to his opponents but also to his allies.
June 6, 2022
February in Santiago, the capital of Chile, is like August in Paris: the end of summer, when everyone who can afford a vacation escapes for a last gasp of freedom. Many santiaguinosgo to the nearby Pacific beaches, or to the chilly lakes in the south. After two months of frenetic activity that followed the election of December 19th, Gabriel Boric, the country’s President-elect, was also planning to take a break
At a back-yard barbecue, a few weeks before his inauguration, Boric explained that he and his partner were heading to the Juan Fernández archipelago, four hundred miles off the coast. Their destination was the island where the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk was marooned in the eighteenth century, helping inspire Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe.” Boric planned to swim and fish, and also to read through a pile of books: the Defoe classic, biographies of Chilean Presidents, a history of Eastern Europe by Timothy Snyder. He felt that he had some catching up to do on geopolitics, since he was already being courted by superpowers.
After Boric’s victory, President Joe Biden had called to offer congratulations, and to invite him to a summit of hemispheric leaders in Los Angeles. Chile, with its four thousand miles of coastline, is a tactical outpost in Latin America—a region where Biden has been trying, intermittently, to increase his outreach. The trip would be complicated for Boric; he had won office at the head of a left-wing coalition that included Chile’s Communist Party, which tends to regard the United States as an imperialist aggressor. But, he told me, the summit wasn’t for several months, and “Biden said I didn’t have to decide right away.”
The Chinese Embassy had hand-delivered a letter from Xi Jinping, in which he courteously reminded Boric that the People’s Republic of China was Chile’s biggest trading partner. Chile is the world’s largest producer of copper and its second-largest of lithium; China’s supply of batteries and cell phones depends on the trade.
Boric had also heard that Vladimir Putin was considering a visit to Argentina, and wondered if he’d want to add Chile to his itinerary. He grimaced as he thought about it. Some on Chile’s hard left see Russia as an ally against American “hegemony,” but Boric didn’t want Putin in his country.
Boric is thirty-six—a year older than the minimum age for a Chilean President—with a stocky build, a round, bearded face, and a mop of brown hair. He described these developments with an air of thrilled complicity; they were among the most important moments of his life so far. He was not yet officially President, but he had been given a car and bodyguards, and was briefed daily by the outgoing administration. He had declared that his government would be feminist, and that his cabinet, in a first for Latin America, would be predominately female; fourteen out of twenty-four ministers would be women, including the secretaries of defense and the interior. Two ministers were openly gay. Many of Boric’s officials were young leftists, like himself.
His partner, Irina Karamanos, also represented a break with the past. A thirty-two-year-old of Greek and German descent, she speaks five languages, has degrees in anthropology and education, and is regarded as a leader in feminist politics. She had already managed to pique some Chileans by declaring that she would “reformulate” the role of First Lady, because she was “neither first nor a lady.”
Boric’s opponent in the election was José Antonio Kast, an ultraconservative Catholic with nine children. An admirer of Brazil’s far-right Jair Bolsonaro, Kast had promised a pro-business, law-and-order government that would keep out unwanted immigrants and oppose abortion and same-sex marriage. He was the son of an officer in Hitler’s Wehrmacht who had immigrated to Chile after the war and built a fortune selling Bavarian-style meats. Echoing Donald Trump, Kast urged voters to “dare to make Chile a great country.”
In the end, Boric beat Kast by twelve percentage points, garnering the largest number of votes ever cast for a candidate in Chile. He represented the most left-wing government since the ill-fated Presidency of Salvador Allende, a socialist who won power in 1970, only to be overthrown three years later in a bloody military coup, after which General Augusto Pinochet ruled as a right-wing dictator for seventeen years.