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Opinion At the Summit of the Americas, listen to the region’s youngest leader

Chilean President Gabriel Boric waves as he arrives June 6 in Los Angeles for the Summit of the Americas. (Etienne Laurent/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

This week’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles will be remembered for its absences rather than its potential agreements. Though the meeting promises to tackle pressing issues for the region, the presidents of several countries — Mexico, Bolivia, Honduras, El Salvador, Uruguay and Guatemala — will either send representatives or skip the summit altogether. Some have specific grievances. Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, for example, appears unhappy with the Biden administration’s criticism of the appointment of María Consuelo Porras, the country’s controversial attorney general.

But for the leftist governments in Mexico, Bolivia and Honduras, the impetus behind the snubs is a concerted effort to defend the authoritarian regimes in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela as worthy of a place at the table. For that, the Biden administration can thank Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. For weeks, López Obrador warned he would boycott the summit if the United States excluded the region’s three leftist dictatorships. On Monday, he carried out his threat.

This could be read as a deep rift between Latin America’s leftist populists and the Biden administration. There is, however, a different kind of progressivism in the region. Its leading figure is Latin America’s youngest president: Chile’s Gabriel Boric.

Elected on a landslide of hope and high expectations not unlike Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, Boric promised to tackle Chile’s history of economic and social inequality. It has proved difficult. In the first few months of his administration, Boric has seen a dramatic erosion of support. But rather than blame the past or skirt responsibility, the 36-year-old president has acknowledged his mistakes.

He has his work cut out for him. Chile is facing a deep-rooted conflict in the south, drug-related violence and tension over the massive influx of Venezuelans seeking refuge in the country. Through it all, Boric has pledged to stay the course and avoid “shortcuts” such as “populism.”

In a conversation on Monday, I asked Boric — who identifies as an “egalitarian socialist” and quotes John Rawls — if he had considered skipping this week’s meeting in Los Angeles. “We discussed it,” he told me. In the end, he chose to take part in the summit. “I could not be absent from a space built for cooperation,” he said. “We need to meet and raise the voice of Latin America in international forums once again.”

Unlike most other leftist leaders in the region — and some in the United States, as well — Boric has managed to wiggle out of the pernicious appeal of the Cuban and Venezuelan sphere of influence. I asked him, for example, how he thought history would remember Hugo Chávez. Boric took a beat and began reminiscing about a trip he had taken in 2010 to Venezuela, still ruled by Chávez. He explained how he had believed in Chávez’s promise of social inclusion. Then, he told me, Chávez disappointed him. “I believe Venezuela’s drift, that concentration of powers, is the wrong path,” he told.

Boric is more cautious when it comes to Cuba. He vehemently explained how the “politics of exclusion,” including specifically the U.S. embargo, have failed to engage Cuba. In our interview, he declined to identify the Cuban regime as a flat-out dictatorship. Yet remarkably, given Cuba’s hold on Latin America’s left, he nonetheless addressed the authoritarian trends in Cuba today. “What I want is for there to be freedom in Cuba,” he told me. “Today in Cuba there are citizens imprisoned for protesting and for expressing their different opinion regarding the current regime. And that seems unacceptable to me.” This is all a far cry from voices such as the grandstanding López Obrador and his impassioned defense of the Castro regime, which he has called “an example of resistance.”

In a region veering away from democracy, Boric is an advocate for reason. “There are certain principles that one has to uphold no matter where you are,” he told me. “Unrestricted respect for human rights. Belief in science, acting on evidence-based policy, and fiscal responsibility.”

In Los Angeles, Boric intends to speak uncomfortable truths, including some aimed at the United States, which damaged Chile when it supported the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende — a wound that, he told me, is still open in Chilean society.

As the continent meets in Los Angeles, it should listen to the voice of its youngest leader.