Patricio Fernandez, Chilean journalist and writer, founder of the weekly digital newspaper “The Clinic”, is also an elected representative to Chile’s Constitutional Convention. He believes that the principal challenge Chile’s new president, Gabriel Boric, will face is “generating deep change with democratic stability.”
Fernandez sees the new Chilean left as a movement defined not only by its generation’s identifying features – the internet, feminism, the social uprising – but also by its marked differences with the authoritarian left of Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro or Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, and its contradictory relationship with the Cuban Communist Party.
Fernandez underscored the fact that Boric’s appointment of Antonia Urrejola as Chile’s foreign minister sends a message about the preeminent role of human rights in his new government. According to Fernandez, it’s a “government that won’t cushion the calamities of those considered allies, nor cover up the atrocities of those who might be considered on his same side. Instead, he’ll deem all those that violate human rights as at least an adversary, if not an enemy, whatever label they’re stamped with.”
During this interview with Confidencial, Fernandez analyzes the epoch of change and uncertainty in Chile, where next July 4th the draft of a new constitution will be presented, to be approved or rejected by the citizens in a plebiscite two months later.
Gabriel Boric’s new presidency and the political generation it represents has generated great expectations for change, not only in Chile, but throughout Latin America. “What does Boric’s leadership and this political project represent?
First of all, it represents the arrival of another generation, and a new world age, with a different accumulation of experiences. Gabriel Boric just turned 36. He’s part of a generation that was born in Chile in exactly the same year as the Plebiscite [a national referendum that ended the 17-year rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet]. In general, this generation was born around 1988, which was when the people voted against Pinochet. It’s the generation of the internet. It’s the post-cold war generation. It’s a generation that is well represented by Gabriel as seeking a different kind of leftism. They’ve explicitly and bluntly distanced themselves from Nicolas Maduro and Chavism, as well as from Ortega and the Nicaraguan dictatorship. So much so, that Gabriel Boric invited Gioconda Belli to his inauguration, and not one figure from the Nicaraguan government. I believe they represent the arrival of different times and a different way of facing future problems, that aren’t necessarily the same as those they leave behind.
At the same time, they have many pending demands to resolve, some that were left inconclusive in Chile, and others that arose during the 2019 social explosion. At the same time, they have to maintain the equilibrium of the political coalition that put them in power. In your view, what’s the principal challenge Boric will face?
The principal challenge for Gabriel Boric is to generate change with stability. That is, to know how to navigate in these times of uncertainty and transformation. On the one hand, there’s important pressure for change, as manifest in the Constitutional Convention I’m a member of, a body where the Chilean social contract is being rethought. On the other hand, the uncertainties contain fears and worries of loss, not only desires for benefits.
We can observe migratory conflicts in the north of Chile. There’s conflict in the south with the Mapuche people, including deaths and bullets, and there’s an overall increase in different kinds of violence. In the capitol, there’s insecurity. Hence, together with this transformation, we’re seeing many worries in day-to-day living. Leading in this moment of change – when an entire political generation is being left in the past, and the one entering is a new generation without experience in government, that has only recently incorporated itself into the political system – means maintaining a balance, knowing how to sustain a stability that breeds trust among investors, and at the same time working to generate social improvements. That’s where the principal challenges come.
One of the central promises of Boric’s campaign platform was to increase by 5% the proportion of the Chilean GNP dedicated to social spending. This was to be accomplished over the course of these four years of his government. That’s a relatively short time to increase public spending and promote policies of equity. How can this increase be accomplished without generating more tensions, while at the same time promoting economic growth?
We’re just now emerging from a social uprising. In October 2019, there was a social explosion that led to demonstrations up and down the length of Chile. In many cases, there was also looting and burning of buildings, even in some small towns of the outlying provinces. These demonstrations spanned Chile’s entire territory. I tell you this in order to answer your question, because we have to ask – How can we maintain the stability needed for medium and long-term investments, unless there’s a climate of social peace and a situation where everyone feels more a part of things.
That’s part of the challenge for the new government, and, in essence, it’s also what propelled the Constitutional process we’re in today. We’re discussing a new Constitution for Chile, with new pacts. It’s important to understand that if investors today feel uncertainty and fear about what this government might do, there’s even more concern about what the Constitutional Convention might decide. It’s a process where some basic norms are being redrawn, and where the environmental issue enters strongly, as well as recognition and guarantees of social rights. In the end, when we ask these questions, not all the answers lie with the government.
Up until now, what’s been the reaction of the Chilean business class and of international investors to Boric’s proposals for change? I suppose that at this moment they’re still in the first days of the honeymoon. What awaits in the medium term?
During the campaign where Boric ran against [Jose Antonio] Kast, the upcoming victory for Boric that many foresaw was seen as a very threatening phenomenon. It was viewed as if a total change of norms, a revolution, was coming. There was a lot of capital flight; many investors took their money out [of the country]; there was a halt on investment projects. At the same time, though, all of Boric’s first gestures have been aimed at stability. He named Mario Marcel, one of Chile’s most respected economists, as finance minister. Before accepting this position, Marcel had been president of Chile’s Central Bank, which just one month before had received homage in the pages of El Mercurio [Chile’s oldest daily newspaper]. Marcel has been praised by both Moors and Christians, from right to left. (…) His appointment sparked a great feeling of relief, that a more stable process was coming here. What’s gong on today in those economic and investment worlds? I believe they’re in “wait and see” mode; judging by what I’ve been able to hear and share, I’d say they feel a certain amount of good will, but are still watching closely.
Boric’s cabinet is made up of more women than men, and he defines his government as one promoting feminist policies. Does this mark a cultural change? Will it be translated into public policies?
Once more, I have to tie that in with the ongoing Constitutional discussions, because on this topic we see a well consolidated reality. Gabriel Boric presented his government as a feminist government. Not only a government with feminist concerns, but a government that’s feminist. If there’s one force today that has unequivocally burst into the public arena in a very present and inescapable way, it’s that of Chilean women.
We’re seeing this in many parts of the world, but since 2018 in Chile there began a series of feminist mobilizations, occupations, marches – with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. In the Constitutional Convention, a democracy of parity is being spoken of. We’re discussing norms whereby all public positions and the state institutions have the obligation of including an equal number of men and women. As such, we’re talking about a very profound transformation. I, myself, have more than once compared this to the end of slavery. I have the impression that it’s a revolution of great depth, involving an entire segment of our species which up until yesterday afternoon was scornfully looked down upon in many senses – although some would say the opposite, maybe 40%. Now, this segment has suddenly burst in with all their force, demanding exactly the same place with everybody else, and with the men. That change is being seen very forcefully.
Where is this Constitutional Convention heading, and how is it working to channel politically and institutionally the demands of Chile’s social uprising? Reading about what’s happening in Chile, you get the sense there’s a debate between those who say the new Constitution can give a fresh push to the process Boric is promoting, while others fear it will generate polarization, and bog things down instead.
For those who admire democracy, the Constitutional Convention must be regarded with great admiration for its effort. This has been an invitation to all our citizens, who are represented culturally and socially in a way never before seen in Chile. We talking about a gathering of 154 people, half of them women. They come representing the original nations; those under 40; every social sector from maids to company owners and managers. They range from Admiral Arancibia, who participated in the Pinochet dictatorship, to those who were tortured under that regime. All this makes it a complex space for decision-making, because we may like democracy, but no one would ever claim it’s easy. Totalitarian, authoritarian leadership is much simpler, since problems are resolved with a single voice.
In this encounter, some resentful, wounded, hurting groups put forth their arguments; people who have been marginalized and who carry a lot of rage. That raging has found a platform on the inside of this, and that’s the truth. It’s a time of uncertainty, because no one could tell you we’re assured of a happy ending for this discussion. However, at the same time, only someone with bad intentions could claim that it’s sure to have a disastrous end. We’re there, and what you can see is that the final norms that will go into the Constitution must be decided by a two-thirds vote of the Assembly members. That requirement generates a moderation in the result that I’m noticing.
Meanwhile, the news that emerges – you and I know well what the press does. They pick out the loudest issue, the most overblown. What commands headlines is the scandalous, the overwhelming. Really, however, what has ended up being consolidated as Constitutional norms are instead quite sensible. I also have to say that it’s a very complex, very exhausting process. It’s sometimes stimulating, and at times worrisome when very large decisions are at play.
The Constitutional Convention has a deadline for concluding the draft of this new Constitution, that will be later submitted to a plebiscite. How will it enter into force? Will the elected Parliament have to promulgate it, and vote it into effect?
In principle, the Constitutional Convention will finish its work on July 4, one year after it began. I say “in principle”, because one of the topics going around here is that we’re pressured by the deadlines and there’s doubt whether or not we’re going to meet them. Now, the truth is that extending the deadlines requires approval from Parliament, and we currently have a Parliament where the Senate, at least, has a slight rightist majority.
These are the contradictions we have in Chile, and I think they’re interesting to watch. First there’s the incredible volatility of the popular will – 80% voted in favor of drafting a new constitution. Only a minority of the representatives to the Constitutional Convention -maybe 20 or so percent – are from the right. In the last parliamentary elections, though, the right scored a victory they hadn’t enjoyed since Chile returned to democracy [in the late 80s]. Jose Antonio Kast, on the extreme right, won the first round of the last presidential elections; but in the second round, Gabriel Boric won overwhelmingly. In other words, we’re living in a world that’s very difficult to diagnose with precision.
What we must deliver on July 4th is a proposal for a Chilean Constitution. We aren’t the ones responsible for the final determination of the Constitution, because it will be subjected to a plebiscite two months later. Those called on to say: “We want this, or we don’t want it; we like it or we don’t like it” are the Chilean citizens. If we finish on July 4, the plebiscite will take place around September. If we don’t finish by July 4, I couldn’t tell you anything more.
In his inaugural message, President Boric emphasized the topic of human rights in his foreign policy, and appointed Antonia Urrejola as foreign minister. She’s a figure very admired in Nicaragua for the work she did as head of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. How do you think these principles will be translated into Chilean diplomacy?
I can only see the appointment of Antonia Urrejola as a deliberate gesture regarding human rights, regardless of labels or last names. I also see a message there for a certain sector of the Latin American left. If that message was intentional, it was delivered anyway. The message is: this government doesn’t intend to cushion the calamities of those they consider their accomplices, or cover up the atrocities of those they or someone else might otherwise consider their own kind. Instead, they’re going to play their hand in favor of human rights, and consider all those who violate them, whatever label they come with, an adversary, if not an enemy.
In this sense, I applauded the appointment of Antonia Urrejola. We should note that she has a long progressive history as a militant in the Chilean Socialist Party. That is, we’re not talking about a figure from the right or a reactionary being appointed to defend these, but precisely a figure from the left, who will want, I’d say, to extol Gabriel Boric’s government. A person that’s transformative, respectful of human rights, and who doesn’t manifest any type of confusion at the moment to condemn them, wherever they come from.
This political initiative of Boric’s represents a new perspective for the renewal of the left in Latin America. It has already been attacked by Nicolas Maduro, who calls it “the cowardly left”. At Boric’s inauguration, as you mentioned, he didn’t invite Nicolas Maduro, nor did he invite Daniel Ortega. However, he did invite the Cuban foreign minister. Why this distinction among the three authoritarian regimes in ALBA?
I can’t offer you a rigorous answer, but remember that the Communist Party is also part of Gabriel Boric’s coalition. Different perceptions coexist within that coalition regarding that very topic we’re talking about. I think I explained to you the core beliefs that President Boric represents. Nonetheless, the Communist Party doesn’t have the same perception of the governments we’re discussing, much less of Cuba. Still, they’re part of [Boric’s] alliance and I suppose that some gesture or internal negotiation had a part in that.
On the other hand, what’s known of Cuba – and it’s a country I’ve dedicated some time to – by some mystery of history has been able to retain a certain minimum underlying respect. It doesn’t deserve it, but [the leaders] know how to manipulate their image in many countries. There may be something of that aspect as well.
But in Cuba, they’ve just issued up to 30-year jail sentences to those who came out to protest during the Cuban social outburst. On the other hand, there’s a contradiction between the Cuban Constitution itself, in relation to the democratic principles, and what Boric is proposing.
Absolutely and totally. I’d go further, and say that Gabriel Boric is completely an ally of the San Isidro movement. He’s an ally of the new generations there that are demanding freedom. He’s closer to Yunior [Garcia’s] movement than to any of the old geezers of the [Cuban] regime. I haven’t the least doubt about it. That said, politics can be very strange.