‘A fairer Chile’: protest generation aims to reshape country in divisive election

During the long, grey winter of 2011, thousands of Chilean university students occupied their campuses for months to demand free, high-quality education for all.

Now, a decade after they brought their demands to the top of the national agenda, that same generation is heading into the most divisive presidential election in years.

The former student leader Gabriel Boric, 35, has a serious chance of becoming the country’s next president, on a pledge to overhaul the neoliberal economic model left behind by the dictatorship of Gen Augusto Pinochet.

“The ‘Chilean miracle’ was just for the outside world, not for us,” says Boric sternly, the tattooed band around his forearm flashing beneath his sleeve. “But when you talk to people in low-income neighbourhoods, they will look around and ask you where this progress can actually be found.”

If he claims victory in this Sunday’s election, Boric would be Chile’s youngest president in more than two centuries. But standing in his way is José Antonio Kast, his far-right opponent who is an enthusiastic advocate of the Pinochet dictatorship and its economic legacy – and who holds a narrow lead in the polls.

The two men offer antithetical agendas: Kast has centred his campaign on conservative social values, security and migration, while Boric espouses an egalitarian, feminist and ecological future for Chile.

While Kast proudly declares himself politically incorrect and opposes marriage equality, Boric pushes inclusivity and progressive social values.

At the heart of his agenda is the overhaul of a free-market model that has enabled economic growth at the cost of deeply entrenched inequalities.

“There are lots of things we want to change about the current model: the total privatisation of social rights, the triumph of individualism over cooperation, and a development model based on the extraction of natural resources,” says Boric.

In October 2019, those conditions helped tip Chile – almost overnight – into the largest protest movement in decades.

The country was paralysed as millions took to the streets against a host of social and economic injustices.

The unrest led to a referendum last year in which Chileans voted by a huge majority to elect an assembly that is drafting a new constitution.

After two tumultuous years, Boric has drawn his campaign programme together from the demands of hundreds of local meetings around the country, and he is broadly offering to make Chile more equal, sustainable, participatory and decentralised.

‘A fairer Chile’: protest generation aims to reshape country in divisive election

José Antonio Kast attends a press conference this month in Santiago. Photograph: Alberto Valdés/EPA

“We are a generation whose involvement in politics began with social movements,” Boric explains.

“But we realised that if we wanted to change Chile, protesting alone wouldn’t be enough – we would have to fight in institutional spaces, too.”

He is fiercely proud of his hometown, Punta Arenas, a tiny city far below the Patagonian icefields at South America’s southernmost tip, and regularly calls for Chile’s regions to be incorporated further into the political process.

In 2013, fresh from leading the University of Chile’s formidable student union, Boric was elected to congress at 27, promising to bridge the gap between protest and politics.

Alongside him, three other youthful faces took the fight from faculty hallways to the very top of the public agenda, helping to define a decade of leftwing politics.

Camila Vallejo and Karol Cariola rose to lead their student unions before going on to serve in congress for Chile’s Communist party.

The other, Giorgio Jackson, led the union at the Pontifical Catholic University and was later elected to congress. He is now Boric’s top political adviser.

A decade on, this influential cohort find themselves bound together once more, this time in a coalition that has a realistic shot at sweeping into government.

“Our movement is at a crucial point with the constitutional process under way and now the possibility of forming a government with Gabriel,” says Vallejo, 33.

“Despite the differences we have had, we have known each other for years and have lived through this process together – in student debates, street protests and then in congress – and these experiences have all converged in this presidential election.”

Some Chileans are concerned by Boric’s proximity to the Communist party, which is supporting his candidacy. But when the party’s leader congratulated the Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega for his recent victory in elections which were widely condemned as a sham, Boric, Cariola and Vallejo quickly distanced themselves from the statement.

On Monday, in the final debate of the campaign, Boric said that his commitment to democracy in Chile, Latin America, and beyond was “absolute”.

For many in Chile, the changing of the guard has been a long time coming.

“This movement had been building for decades – right through the transition to democracy and even before,” says Gabriel Salazar, a historian of contemporary social movements at the University of Chile.

Four months have now passed since Boric strode onstage to acknowledge his victory in the leftwing primaries and declare his intention to bury Pinochet’s neoliberal model once and for all.

“The Chile I imagine is fairer and more equal; open and democratic; a Chile which offers security and not uncertainty to the people who live here,” he explains.

But while many young Chileans are excited by the shift that Boric would represent, he is wary of overestimating the cohesive power of his generation of student protest leaders.

“We aren’t reinventing world order here, and nor does history begin with us,” he says. “That kind of arrogance is doomed to fail.”

The elections on Sunday will demonstrate just how much Chile has changed – and whether the country is ready to remake itself in the image of Boric’s determined generation.