Why the victory of the Chilean left is not a model for other progressives




BUENOS AIRES – The “Chilean model” is back in fashion, following the recent electoral triumph of the left in this country. The election in December of young Gabriel Boric inspired the left around the world and positively inflamed socialists in Latin America. It’s all smiles and hugs right now.

We had forgotten the heroic Chile of our youth! Chile fighting Inti-Illimani folk singers and mythical songs like El Pueblo Unido (“The United People”). Will we return to the proletarian trenches? Insensitive to ridicule, some even hailed the fall of “fascism”. Are they right or will it turn into a big mess?

The triumphalism is understandable. Chile still suffers from its past – the wounds of Augusto Pinochet’s authoritarian right-wing military dictatorship have yet to heal. The story takes unexpected turns. Great trauma always has consequences down the line, and their heirs of victims of injustice will always fight for justice.

Chilean uniqueness

Indeed, one of the stupidities of dictatorships is their inability to imagine the future consequences of their abuses. It happened in Argentina, and it is happening in Chile. It is only hoped that Boric does not follow in the footsteps of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her husband Néstor Kirchner in Argentina and confuse his victory with a warrant for revenge. Hopefully, he doesn’t confuse “narrative” with reality and memory with history, for then he would reap the same results – a shock of fiery devotion, hatred, and polarization.

That being said, following the Chilean model has never done good for anyone, including the Chileans. The country is not cursed, just unique. Chile is too distinct a country to be a model for its neighbors. It presents a unique historical blend of authoritarian conservatism and strong parliamentary traditions, Prussian militarism, Basque and British influences, geographic isolation, separation of church and state, a 1925 constitutional makeup and the inexplicable capacity of its institutions to thwart and absorb populism.

With the return of democracy, Chilean governments have kept the Pinochet recipe

US President John F. Kennedy believed Chile seemed to be the perfect showcase for his Alliance for Progress. The United States then had many anti-Communist allies, some even reformist, but none were really popular. Chile’s young Christian Democrats seemed to fit this bill, as did their leader, Eduardo Frei, a Catholic like Kennedy, with impeccable “Christian Democratic” features. Kennedy did not live to see Frei’s triumph nor his sad end, nor the victory of socialist Salvador Allende, which was the opposite of what he wanted. Goodbye model; the pretty storefront window was smashed.

The Allende model

Salvador Allende, Marxist President of Chile from 1970 to 1973, provided a later model, but even more so in Europe, where socialism had warmed to democracy, than in Latin America, where it still reeked of armed revolution. Allende has become the source of a very big misunderstanding.

The Europeans insisted on seeing him as a social democrat, while the Latin American left, with its revolutionary aims, thought he should “bide his time”. Even the Soviets were puzzled: who was he?

Cuban Fidel Castro warned him not to take the electoral route to socialism, as it could lead to his downfall. And he did. As the enraged middle class walked out banging pots and pans, with a flourishing black market, infighting between Allende’s allies and his opponents uniting against him, Allende’s storefront was shattered long before the 1973 coup.

Is it a new start or a return to basics?

His successor, General Augusto Pinochet, also becomes a model. He was the first leader to forcibly end the state-centric system and impose liberal economic reforms.

The idea was to make the productive system more efficient and to place Chile in an emerging process of globalization. It wasn’t totally insane. Like it or not, 20 years after the coup, other countries in the region have followed this model, mired as they were in inflationary crises and chronic inefficiencies.

With the return of democracy, Chilean governments have kept the Pinochet recipe and the country has grown at a constant and sustained pace, reducing poverty by leaps and bounds. I believe, going against the current spirit of discontent and recriminations, that the 20 years since the junta plan will eventually be considered as a Belle Epoque, a bit like the 30 years of meteoric growth following World War II in Europe, which his youth sought to wipe out in the 1970s.

What to expect from the new government

Nothing is final, of course. Expectations grow, generations change and what was good yesterday is not enough today. Which brings us to the “new Chilean model” that some see on the horizon.

It has young leaders, radical rhetoric, new rights and movements, and new topics. Is it a new start or a return to basics? Is this an attempt to fix what was broken in 1973? I doubt the new Chilean rulers are clear on any of these issues, and their overseas fans rubbing their hands in joy are probably less so. They confuse the presidential palace of Santiago with the Winter Palace, and the Chilean youth with the youth of other countries.

Anyone who wants to be a model better be prepared to do the housework

What to expect For the historian, nothing is completely new and there are no identical repetitions in history either. Expect strong gestures, token measures and ambitious reforms, which will not be as drastic as many hope. Chile is not what it used to be, and governing is not the same as protesting.

I think that the rules of democracy will prevail, and the plurality of ideas will slow down revolutionary ardor. The country’s young leaders will not be foolish enough to throw out baby prosperity with the bathwater. I doubt the populism virus will find a home here.

So I say welcome to the endless disappointments and constant “betrayals” of the “revolution”. No new model means more broken glass. Anyone who wants to be a model better be prepared to clean up the mess.

* Zanatta is a historian and lecturer at the University of Bologna campus in Argentina.

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