Op-Ed: Will voters choose to make Chile terrible again?

Ever since my native Chile regained its democracy in 1990 after 17 years of a brutal dictatorship, I have been haunted by the fear that those dark times could return. It didn’t matter how many times that dread was accompanied by evidence of how Chileans were distancing from the terrors of the past — repudiating executions, torture, and the mass exile of dissidents of strongman Gen. Augusto Piochet — I couldn’t shake the feeling that my country might one day condone authoritarianism or repression.

My fear was lifted significantly two years ago when the largest protests for social justice in Chile’s recent history resulted in 80% the electorate voting to repeal Pinochet’s fraudulent 1980 Constitution, which had been limiting indispensable reforms. The fact that the constitutional convention has been reconceptualizing a deeply democratic government since July seemed to indicate that dictatorship advocates and perverse institutions were being permanently demolished.

I shouldn’t have been so optimist.

Chile will vote Sunday for a new president. There could be a runoff between the two top candidates four weeks later. Campaigners have seen the possibility that Jose Antonio Kast (an ultra-right-wing populist who regards Pinochet as his hero) could be the next president.

When Kast launched his candidacy as the son of a Nazi officer and had served Hitler, I thought, along with many observers, that his campaign would fail. His opposition to abortion, divorce, and gay rights, along with his window-dressing responses regarding global warming, were not in line with the majority of the country’s thinking. Kast also supported the preservation of the old, autocratic constitution. He was also a supporter of pardoning Pinochet’s most inhumane torturers, murderers, and other agents who are currently serving lengthy prison sentences for human rights violations.

How could this crypto-fascist end up being Chile’s next president?

Kast is tapping into the anxiety of Chile’s “silent majority” (shades reminiscent of Trump and Nixon). He has been channeling anger and fear about the country’s future, and repeatedly stoking it.

Since 2014, over a million migrants (mostly from Haiti or Venezuela) have arrived to Chile (population: a little more than 19 millions). Nationalist voters were enthusiastic about Kast’s proposal to close Chile’s borders to illegal immigrants and to build a trench to keep them away. They blame these economic refugees of poverty and delinquency.

Crime, a related concern for families and is associated with the violent demonstrations that led to the constitution convention. It also coincides with an increase in violence in the area where Indigenous communities are fighting for land-and water rights they have been denied for centuries. A militaristic, “law and order” candidate suddenly becomes ominously attractive. The pandemic has weakened Chile’s solidarity bonds. Many citizens, weary of unrest and uncertainty, are eager to trust any demagogue promising a return to the “traditional values.”

There are other candidates running for president. Only one, Gabriel Boric, a tattooed and charismatic 35-year-old left-wing congressman, is expected to gain enough votes to trigger a runoff with Kast.

Boric follows Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected socialist president who was overthrown in the 1973 coup which brought Pinochet to power. He is the embodiment of the massive social movement that demanded an inclusive republic where the livelihood and dreams are not subordinated to the interests a few. This new story about the direction the nation should go tells a different story. The forward-looking Boric leads the way against the reactionary Kast in the polls.

The forward-looking Boric is tied with the reactionary Kast in the polls. His willingness to make mistakes and open to discussion — a trait I admire in him — makes him appear inexperienced in an election that favors security over innovation.

I am excited about Boric’s program. It is one of the most advanced socially in the world. He is feminist, ecologically sound and worker-oriented. However, I know that he will need to have great dexterity to appease his Communist allies while also enlisting the progressive center left parties that guided Chile through its most recent post-dictatorial years.

Confronted by a stark choice between the dreadful past and a still-to-be-charted future — and grappling with the discontents and challenges facing so many countries, including the United States — what will Chile decide? I hope my country of origin can teach the world how to overcome the fear and find the courage to create a better social order.

Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean American author of “Death and the Maiden,” has recently published the novels “Cautivos” and “The Compensation Bureau.” He lives in Chile and Durham, N.C., where he is a professor emeritus of literature at Duke University.

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