15 December 2021
By Gwynne Dyer
British journalist Claude Cockburn once claimed that he won a contest among the sub-editors on the London Times to write the dullest headline and actually get it published in the paper. His winning headline was ‘Small Earthquake in Chile, Not Many Hurt’.
It must annoy Chileans, but elsewhere their country is a byword for boring. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, asked about Chile’s geopolitical importance, once quipped: “Chile is a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica.”
Yet Kissinger cared enough about the country to organise the murder of the chief of the Chilean General Staff in 1970, and he backed a coup that killed socialist president Salvador Allende and put military dictator Augusto Pinochet in power in 1973. True, it was the Cold War, and President Richard Nixon wanted it done, but still…
Anyway, here’s an article about this Sunday’s presidential election in Chile, and I’ll try not to make it too boring (although it doesn’t help that the right-wing candidate is a Donald Trump tribute act).
A lot of journalists are presenting it as yet another episode in ‘The Americas Go Crazy’ series. After Trump in the United States and Bolsonaro in Brazil, here comes another extreme-right autocrat basing his pitch on nationalism, racism and contempt for the laws and rules that restrain lesser men.
Indeed some journalists, desperate for a narrative line that sticks, are even portraying this election as a rerun of the great Chilean tragedy of 1973-1990, when the left-wing Allende government was violently overthrown by the 17-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (3,000 executed or ‘disappeared’, 30,000 tortured, etc.). But it’s not like that at all.
The great surprise in the first round of the presidential election last month was that an extreme-right politician called José Antonio Kast got the most votes. He promises to save Chile from the Communists (although the Communist candidate got only one percent of the votes), and from the evil immigrants who are stealing the jobs of hard-working Chileans.
Since 1.5 million immigrants, most of them refugees from Venezuela and Haiti, have entered the country (pop. 19 million) in recent years, many Chileans are feeling overwhelmed. Kast says he will dig a mighty Ditch along Chile’s frontiers (7,801 km.) to stop them – the idea of a mighty Wall was already taken – and that promise has some traction.
So far, so Trumpian, but then Kast goes full Bolsonaro, speaking fondly of his admiration for Pinochet’s dictatorship. It runs in the family: his own father was a Nazi who fought in Hitler’s army and only moved to Chile after 1945. Kast could actually do some harm if he became president – but it’s less likely than it looks.
Kast paints his opponent in the run-off election in 19 December, Gabriel Boric, as a ‘Communist’, but the 35-year-old former student leader is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. He suffers from the reflex romanticism of the Latin American left, calling colleagues ‘comrade’ and making an occasional clenched fist salute, but his political project is hardly revolutionary.
There’s the usual bits about feminism, the green economy, and the rights of the LGBT community and indigenous peoples, but the political heart of Boric’s programme is expanded public health and pension systems, cutting the working week from 44 hours to 40, and rebuilding the national railway system.
It’s the sort of programme Joe Biden would happily sign up to. The question is really whether it’s radical enough to persuade the disillusioned veterans of the massive street protests of 2019 to come out and vote for Boric.
Chile is a prosperous country where half the population worries about making their money last until the next payday. It has the worst income inequality of any developed country, largely thanks to the heritage of the Pinochet years.
Other countries that voted populist autocrats into power know from bitter experience that this sort of situation gives fast-talking snake-oil salesmen a lot to work with, so democrats in Chile are right to be worried. However, the last votes in Chile that really mattered showed a different picture.
78% of Chilean voters approved a national convention to write a new constitution to replace the Pinochet-era one in 2020. In last May’s election to choose the people who will actually write that constitution, the right-wing parties couldn’t even elect the one-third of members who would be needed to veto bits of the constitution that the right didn’t like.
The Chilean electorate is clearly in a volatile mood, but fewer than half of them bothered to vote in the first round of the presidential election last month. They were waiting for the second round, when they have to choose between only two candidates, not seven.
In the last poll before the election, Boric was still leading Kast 52%-48%. It’s close, but it’s probably enough.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“Yet…still”; and “Since…traction”)
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘The Shortest History of War’.