Chile’s millennial president-elect is a sign of a very different ‘pink tide’

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Across Latin America, the left is on the march, capturing the presidencies in Peru, Honduras and, on Sunday, Chile, adding to the ranks of other left-leaning governments already stretching from Mexico to Argentina. On the surface, it might seem like deja vu — a flashback to the “pink tide” of the 2000s that churned up globally known firebrands including the father of Venezuelan socialism, Hugo Chavez.

Take a closer look, though, and the new tide is different.

It is always dangerous to generalize a region populated by diverse nations with unique domestic dynamics. But compared to the 2000s, Latin America’s new crop of leftist leaders are, on average, less uniform and more measured. The pandemic that struck Latin America in the worst economic crisis of the 20th century and saw poverty levels soar, is the common thread. The rise of inequalities, corruption, and failures of the traditional political class is punishing the right-wing parties at the top, allowing room for nontraditional, if not conventional, outsiders to the left.

As they score wins across the region, the new crop of leftists are more focused on domestic change than spreading the seed of global socialism. Unlike the socialist showmen of the past such as Ecuador’s Rafael Correa — who scoffed at gay rights and opposed abortion even in cases of rape at least some of the newcomers are social progressives and call strengthening democracy as vital as economic change. The newcomers have not yet demonized the United States nor alienated business interests, as Chavez did.

In Chile, the new president-elect is the bearded millennial Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old former student activist who carries a new generation’s dreams to La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago. Tossing around the term “comrade”, he has joined the Communist Party and vowed to make Chile, the region’s largest capitalist economy, the “graveyard” of “neoliberalism. But, he also rejects old-school tactics and has called out left-wing dictators in Venezuela and Nicaragua.

His more nuanced positions set him up to be Latin America’s first woke president, a leader built for an age of gender-neutral pronouns and Greta Thunberg. His goals are to create a welfare state, foster social justice and build new institutions. But bucking the far-left’s tradition of machismo, he is also vowing to push LGBTQ causes, gender equality and indigenous rights while protecting the environment and battling climate change. He speaks of corporations and rich paying more taxes. He praises fiscal responsibility.

“Boric, I think, is unique in Latin America,” Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank, told me. “He is really a postmodern leader who reflects generational change and combines great attention to the social agenda with equal rights, inclusion and diversity.”

Boric’s overwhelming victory marks a sharp turn from the politics that dominated Chile during the rule of its late right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet’s supporters, including Boric’s right-wing rival in the race, have long maintained that they should thank him for helping to plant the seeds of Chile’s free-market model economy.

To preserve it, Boric will need to keep the aspects of the economy that work. On Sunday, his young voters rejected a legacy which also colluded wealth and economic progress disproportionately for the country’s right-wing elites and restricted the upward mobility and opportunity of an internet-savvy working-class that wants more than just bread.

“We are going to create a more just society for everyone,” Boric vowed in his victory speech.

Hondurans last month elected Xiomara Castro, a democratic socialist and the country’s first female leader, ending the 12-year rule of the conservative National Party. She replaces President Juan Orlando Hernandez, a Trump administration ally whose tenure, as the Los Angeles Times put it, was “marked by human rights violations, extrajudicial killings, stolen public money, poverty and complicity in drug trafficking at the highest levels of government.”

But as a correspondent who covered Latin American politics during parts of the 1990s, 2000s, 2010s and 2020s, I can say that dashed hope for lasting change has perhaps been its only constant. And despite high expectations from the leaders of the Class of 2021, this time may be no different — as Peru is already learning.

There, the electorate, by the narrowest margins, propelled an untested schoolteacher with Marxist allies to the presidency in June, bringing to power the most socially conservative of the region’s new leftist leaders. As allegations of corruption and incompetence swirl around Pedro Castillo’s young administration, his approval ratings have tanked. He has been impeached once by lawmakers. He survived but analysts anticipate more attempts to remove him.

Unlike the tightknit band of regional leaders in the 2000s — Chavez allegedly attempted to give Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner a suitcase of cash to help fund her 2007 election bid — few see the new left as rebooting the Latin American Socialists Club of yore.

“I don’t see that happening, you don’t have the leadership, and you don’t have the money that you had in the 2000s,” Shifter said.

Still, the new crop of leaders will face steeper challenges than their peers in the 2000s and will need to sidestep their ample mistakes. Latin America enjoyed a boom in commodities that helped to reduce poverty and fuel social programs. The state’s coffers have been reduced since the outbreak of the pandemic. The leftists of 2000s also failed on multiple fronts — giving way, for instance, to a dictatorship in Venezuela and lingering corruption and economic malaise in Argentina and Ecuador, a nation that this year flipped to the right and elected a conservative former banker.

Already, there are signs that nervous investors and rich locals are voting with their pocketbooks, dumping stocks, buying dollars and transferring wealth abroad to buy more condos in Miami.

It will be up to newcomers like Boric to prove they can deliver on promises of economic progress — and avoid the pitfalls of their predecessors.

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