Chile’s election pits José Antonio Kast, a bombastic far-right politician whom many liken to Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, against Gabriel Boric, a far-left lawmaker and former student organizer. Kast speaks fondly of Chile’s last episode of dictatorship under Gen. Augusto Pinochet and smears Boric as a communist puppet. Boric has framed his candidacy as a fight against fascism— a position strengthened by the bombshell revelation that Kast’s German-born father joined Hitler’s Nazi party in 1942.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Chile’s ongoing constitutional convention is poised to propose next year the biggest overhaul to the country’s political system since the Pinochet dictatorship. The new president will have a national stage to influence the acceptance or rejection of a new charter.
There are three key factors driving Chile’s new identity politics.
The first is an influx of more than 1 million immigrants to the country, largely from Haiti and Venezuela, since 2014. The second is the mobilization of Chile’s largest Indigenous group, the Mapuche, to reclaim control of land and resources that were forcibly taken from them during the country’s settlement. The third is the country’s rapidly shifting gender norms and women’s rights, including last week’s legalization of same-sex marriage and recent steps to decriminalize abortion.
The political left has sought to extend social and economic support to immigrants. It has carved out reserved seats for the Mapuche in Chile’s constitutional assembly. Indeed, the head of the assembly is an Indigenous Mapuche woman who vocally advocates for a more inclusive and democratic government. And it has taken progressive stances on gender equality and women’s rights in what has been a traditionally conservative society.
The political right has gained traction by demonizing these positions as a threat to Chilean identity and pins a rise in poverty, criminality and violence on immigrants and Indigenous activists. Kast has vocally proposed shutting the doors to immigrants and building physical barriers on the country’s northern borders. In October, the outgoing right-wing government declared a state of emergency and deployed troops to several southern regions where Indigenous Mapuche groups demanding land restoration and self-determination clashed with security forces. Kast has also vowed to roll back “gender ideology” and give churches a greater role in society.
Polls show that Kast has made inroads with middle-class voters who fear that immigration and Indigenous mobilization will upend the country’s stability and growth. He has also deftly tapped into how middle- and upper-class Chileans conceive of status in part in terms of whiteness and, by extension, has framed darker-skinned migrants and Indigenous groups as lower-status “others” that threaten national identity and stability.
Chile’s left-right tussle over identity issues mirrors dynamics in several other Latin American countries in recent years. Colombia and Peru have taken welcoming stances on immigrants, particularly the millions of people fleeing Venezuela. Countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela all adopted new plurinational constitutions in the 2000s that officially recognized Indigenous minority languages and traditions that had long been marginalized. Brazil and Colombia have adopted affirmative action policies for people of African descent. And many countries in the region have increasingly recognized Indigenous claims to ancestral lands.
My research shows that this follows a long history of dispossession of native lands, as well as partial restoration through land reform programs of the mid-to-late 20th century that eliminated Indigenous servitude and took a major step forward in leveling categorial inequalities. Finally, over the past decade, a number of countries in the region adopted same-sex marriage, passed laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, loosened abortion restrictions and advanced the representation of women in politics.
These steps toward greater inclusion generated a backlash. Colombia’s incumbent president is facing withering attacks from the hard right for his accommodating stance on immigration. Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, Evo Morales, was overthrown in 2019 by a right-wing coalition of elites intent on restoring the “traditional” past. And Brazil’s Bolsonaro has repeatedly demonized immigrants, indigenous groups, LGBTQ Brazilians and Afro-Brazilians.
These struggles are not unique to Latin America. Trump used immigration, “political correctness” and rapidly shifting norms on gender identity to paint Democrats as out of touch with mainstream America and to win the votes of White voters in the Rust Belt, stoking identity politics and political tribalism along the way. Chile might soon learn, as in other countries, that once identity politics is unleashed, it is hard to put back at bay.