Et tu, Chile?

In Latin America, a region adrift in mad political swings and managed chaos, the long, thin nation that Henry Kissinger once dismissed as a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica was lucky to be politically dull. Neighboring Peruvians went through five presidents in three years, ultimately flipping from a Wall Street banker to a radical leftist schoolteacher. Brazilian voters dizzyingly spun from the Workers’ Party to the Trumpian fringes of Jair Bolsonaro. But Chileans living in one of Latin America’s most successful nations kept a relatively even keel, leaping from staid and serious European-style socialists to a right-wing centrist who in June came out in favor of same-sex marriage.

Chile is even keeled no more. A country long held up globally as a free market model run by moderates has slipped into the world of political extremes, taking with it the illusion of Chile as an oasis in a sea of instability. It happens as the polarization sweeping up much of the democratic world reaches into the Southern Cone, prompting deeply divided Chileans to give the most votes in Sunday’s first-round presidential election to two wild-card candidates.

José Antonio Kast is the son of a German officer who served in Adolf Hitler’s army, and a longtime defender of late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. A Trump of the Andes, Kast wants to dig a ditch in the desert to stop migrants and get tough on crime. He came in first with 28 percent of the vote and will square off against Gabriel Boric, a bearded millennial and former student activist who garnered 2 percentage points less. While more moderate than many on the far-left, Boric is hardly middle of the road.

“If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave,” he said after winning the candidacy for his leftist bloc.

“In Chile, I think you see what is now the established trend in Latin America — the complete crumbling of political parties with any kind of moderate centrist option,” Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, told me this week. “It’s being replaced by high levels of political uncertainty and enormous fragmentation.”

After a December runoff, one of the two men will become president, adding Chile to the growing ranks of New World nations — Brazil, El Salvador, Peru, the United States — that set sail into uncharted waters with unpredictable outsiders at the helm. It’s anyone’s race, but experts give Kast the edge.

“Kast has been tapping into the intense anxiety of what he calls Chile’s ‘silent majority’ (shades of Nixon and Trump!), channeling and relentlessly stoking fears and anger about the country’s future and its identity,” Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean American author, wrote in the Los Angeles Times.

Their domestic dynamics may be different, but the culture wars propelling Kast to the presidency in Chile are similar to the themes that took Trump to the White House. Kast has strongly backed the police against left-wing charges of excessive force. He demonized the 1 million migrants — mostly from Venezuela and Haiti — who saw stable Chile as South America’s land of opportunity. At his victory rally Sunday, some supporters wore Make America Great Again caps.

“Kast’s proposals to close Chile’s frontiers to ‘illegal immigrants’ and build a trench to keep them out have been met with enthusiasm by nationalistic voters who blame these economic refugees for a rise in poverty and delinquency,” Dorfman wrote.

The collapse of the center in Chile was a chronicle of political death foretold. After Pinochet’s ruthless rule came to an end in 1990, the newly democratic nation witnessed a historic period of economic growth. Gross domestic product growth between 1990 and 2018 averaged 4.7 percent annually, well above the Latin American average. Over that same period, democratic governments increased social spending. Extreme poverty (below $1.5 per day) was virtually wiped out.

But, like much of the region, Chile is also confronting corrosive levels of inequality, and too many people hovering just above the poverty line. It is one of the most economically unjust nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a group of developed nations. As Time’s Ciara Nugent wrote last week, poorer Chileans today face untenable living costs, with 6 in 10 households earning too little to cover monthly expenses.

In 2019, the result was a social explosion, theoretically sparked by a transit fare increase. But more broadly, it stemmed from the pent-up fury of lower-income Chilean youth, many of whom felt cut off from upward mobility by the nepotism and class connections that corral wealth for Chile’s economic elites.

Sebastián Candia, a young lawyer in Chile, told me in 2019 how he’d joined those protests. The son of a carpenter and the first of his family to attend college, he’d spent more than a year looking for work after graduating from a top university. He was saddled with $19,000 in student loan debt and unable to find a job, while his family fell behind on bills in a free-market economy that lacked the state subsidies offered in other nations in the region.

“Chile is a pretty-looking tin-roofed house in the slum that is Latin America,” he’d said then. “But when you look inside, it’s rotten.”

Like much of polarized Latin America, Chileans are also losing faith in traditional parties. Center-right President Sebastián Piñera survived an impeachment attempt over alleged irregularities in the sale of a mining firm, but the accusations fed into the cross-continental narrative of a privileged political elite.

For angry Chilean youth, there is something to look forward to: a grand bargain for a new constitution to replace the one drafted during Pinochet’s dictatorship. In May, voters in a low-turnout election chose a left-leaning special assembly to draft the constitution — shocking markets and moderates alike with the prospect of writing in big social spending hikes and free market curbs.

The gravitation of youth in Chile to the more distant left explains the rise of Boric. The presidential hopeful embodies the student movement that has criticized the mainstream left for its unwillingness to touch sacred cows like Chile’s landmark but troubled private pension system. Boric has said he will replace it with a public pension plan.

A growing backlash to that leftward shift explains Kast. Some Chileans appear deeply uneasy with the direction of the new constitution and are skeptical of the reluctance of left-wing politicians to denounce continuing acts of violence during left-wing protests and by indigenous Mapuche activists in the country’s south.

“You can protest, but peacefully,” Ramon Zambrano, a Santiago doorman, told Reuters. “They're making a mess, burning cars, burning the metro.”

Sergio Bitar, who served in the cabinet of Salvador Allende, the elected socialist overthrown by Pinochet in 1973, as well as in more recent center-left governments, recently told me that the firm hold of more centrist parties in congress may control the most radical impulses of whoever wins.

But the risk posed by both Kast and Boric is more social unrest, and rough and tumble political wars that could eliminate Chilean exceptionalism as a politically stable South American state.

“I would never have thought such change could be possible in my country over the course of just two years,” Bitar said. “Both roads could lead us to the abyss, to becoming Argentina or Peru.”

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