Chile’s current reality could not have been imagined by the boldest screenwriters. Violence, polarization, economic and health crises, and campaign absurdities are dominating daily life. Difficult times are ahead.
Earlier this year I released my first political reality-fiction novel. Although I took the last two years of upheaval as a basis – from the social outbreak of October 2019, including the pandemic – I focused the plot on a candidate who came from the business world and who, because of the political and institutional crisis, managed to become president of Chile on November 19.
In this story, Andrónico Luksic, the country’s richest man, arrived at government palace La Moneda almost by chance. In the different forums and programs I participated in at launch, I was asked several times if it was not too risky to create a reality so far removed from actual events.
Less than a year ago, it was taken for granted that two mayors of Santiago districts would vie for the top job. Daniel Jadue of the Communist Party and Joaquín Lavín of Independent Democratic Union led the polls by wide margins. The president’s National Renewal party and the Christian Democrats had also selected candidates, and the country was preparing to elect the members of the Constitutional Convention that is writing the new Magna Carta. And, of course, the polls predicted the convention campaigns would be battled out between the opposition and the ruling party.
Today, none of these presidential candidates remains in the race. And in the Convention, the “People’s List” candidates surprised with astonishing results, while the right was reduced to its weakest showing in decades.
On November 15, 2019, an emergency parliamentary pact was signed, which avoided democratic breakdown. Citizens were exerting pressure in the streets, President Sebastián Piñera’s approval dropped to 6%, and it seemed we had started a cycle of progressive ideas dominating the political agenda. Posters in public places across the country said, “Enough abuses” or “New Constitution.”
Chile was entering structural change, fueled by vast citizen support. However, all that seems to have gone, too.
How did we go from that progressive turn to hard-right José Antonio Kast leading the polls? Kast remains ultra-orthodox on matters like divorce, abortion, or sexual minority freedoms, even though public opinion has become more liberal in Chile. Similar to Donald Trump, Kast wants to build a ditch to prevent migrants from entering, and he wants to abolish the Women’s Ministry and supports the military prisoners convicted for crimes against humanity committed during the dictatorship.
Piñera’s low popularity seems to be the only thing that has remained constant, even though the government kicked off a tremendously successful vaccination campaign.
In Chile reality has far surpassed fantasy in recent months. Therefore, my novel “La Historia de Cómo llegó Andrónico a ser Presidente” (The Story of How Andrónic became President) has been totally exceeded. I doubt the best Netflix screenwriter could have imagined a script like the one we are experiencing daily. We have the president subject to a constitutional accusation – approved by the Lower House but unlikely to advance in the Senate. Yes, for once, his constant conflicts of interest, enriching his family during his two terms, are causing him some inconvenience.
The presidential candidates have just finished quarantine after former frontrunner Gabriel Boric tested positive for the Delta variant after a presidential debate. And People’s Party presidential candidate Franco Parisi has not even been in Chile for over two years, preferring to stay in the US.
Both leaders in the polls, Boric and Kast, represent the political extremes, while the latter wants to be even tougher than Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, even though Chile’s extreme right never exceeded 7% in the last two elections. In La Araucanía region, we have a state of emergency, involving military deployments to confront an increasingly intense conflict, involving indigenous demands, corporate interests, and private militias.
Dark Clouds on the Horizon
Chile, formerly seen as an orderly country and described by Piñera as an oasis just days before the social outbreak, will face an extremely difficult period. Whoever wins the elections will have to face highly complex problems, comparable only to the return to democracy in 1990, when Patricio Aylwin had to govern with Augusto Pinochet as commander in chief.
The next president will face a bleak economic outlook – rising inflation, a 22% budget cut – social and health crises, intensifying polarization, implementing the new Constitution, escalating crime, and the conflict in La Araucanía that no government has been able resolve.
But perhaps the most dramatic development is that for the first time in more than 30 years the election winner will be the lesser evil rather than the better candidate. We no longer have leaders like Aylwin, Lagos or Bachelet and the social crisis seems to have been buried by the elite, forgetting its causes and the millions who marched demanding changes. Instead, discussion centers on a violent minority that caused destruction.
Difficult times are ahead, something very different from the “Better Times” Piñera promised in his 2017 campaign.
Germán Silva Cuadra is an expert in corporate communications and a regular commentator on Chilean politics. His latest book is ‘No te reconozco Chile. Cómo entender al país que noqueó a la elite.’ Germán tweets under @gsilvacuadra.