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Chile has a special place in the heart of progressives worldwide: it is after all the birthplace of poet Pablo Neruda and democratic socialist Salvador Allende. The election of Gabriel Boric in Chile’s December 2021 election, and the recent rejection of the newly minted constitution, have salutary lessons for South Africans.

For one, Boric is only 36 years old. While the sclerotic leadership of the ANC struggles to mainstream young voices, Chile has, like many other countries such as Finland, allowed youth to trump old age. And this has seen the ushering in of cabinets dominated by women. Fourteen women make up Boric’s cabinet of 24 ministers, with two of the ministers openly identifying as gay.

Allende’s overthrow by a military coup led by Gen Agostino Pinochet after three years in power contains another lesson for SA. It is so easy for the gains made during a progressive era to be eroded. Under Pinochet not only were democratic rights suspended and progressives persecuted or killed, but Chile became the playground of neoliberal economic graduates of the University of Chicago.

This left it with a history of deepening inequality, which persisted even under the more centrist, post-Pinochet governments. The 2019 World Inequality Report placed it at the bottom of the league, with countries such as Mozambique.

The estallido social (social explosion) of October 2019 was a reaction to the immiseration experienced by most Chileans and led to a historic pact among the various parties committed to rewriting the constitution.

In power, Boric’s government showed which side of the left divide they would be positioned: Nicaragua’s leftist dictator Daniel Ortega, once a poster boy of progressives worldwide, pointedly was not invited to the inauguration.

In this context, the early setback Boric’s administration suffered around the new constitution also contains lessons for SA. In 2020 a convention was elected to rewrite the constitution, which had been promulgated in 1980 during the Pinochet era. The elected convention largely comprised people from outside the existing political parties, with views ranging from the loony to the hard left.

Centrist path

The result was a mishmash of 388 articles, enshrining 100 rights, making it one of the world’s longest constitutions. Some of the outlandish articles and antics of members of the convention did not endear the constitution to the public, who rejected it overwhelmingly in the September referendum.

The lesson is to ensure that while firmly rejecting patriarchy and other backward ways of thinking, we need to ensure that a centrist path committed to the social, cultural and economic upliftment of all is maintained.

Writing in the New Yorker, Jon Lee Anderson suggests that the Latin American left appears to be divided between the models set by former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and that of Allende. The Fidelistas would include Ortega, former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and current head Nicholas Maduro, characterised by centralising and autocratic tendencies.

Jose Mujica, former president of Paraguay, and Lula da Silva, who will be contesting the October Brazilian presidential elections against Brazil’s incumbent right-wing strongman, Jair Bolsanaro, would be deemed to be of the Allendista mould. Other leaders, such as Mexican president Lopez Obrador, began with a popular, progressive left agenda only to start showing authoritarian tendencies.

Since the constitutional referendum Boric has made the sensible move of bringing in more centrist ministers in the cabinet reshuffle after the constitutional referendum. He would need to ensure he is not pushed by his fragile alliance to retreat into an illiberal lager, ruling more by fiat than through truly democratic processes.

The re-emergence of democracy in Chile reminded me of one of my favourite Neruda line: “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.” The Chilean spring, which finally arrived after Pinochet’s misrule, should not be allowed to freeze into a winter of suppression.

• Abba Omar is director of operations at the Mapungubwe Institute.

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