Ever since my native Chile regained its democracy in 1990 after 17 years of brutal dictatorship, I have been haunted by the fear that those dark times might return. How often this fear has been met with proof of how the Chilean people distance themselves from the terror of the past – denying the executions, torture and mass exile of dissidents under the strong general Augusto Pinochet – I could not shake the feeling. that someday my country, besieged by crises, will tolerate a regression to authoritarianism and repression.
My fear increased two years ago, when the largest social justice protests in Chile’s history led to 80% of the electorate voting to replace Pinochet’s fraudulent 1980 constitution, which limited vital reforms. The way the constitutional convention, in session since July, has reconcepted a deeply democratic government seemed a sign that the perverse institutions and defenders of dictatorship are constantly being incinerated and insignificant.
I shouldn’t be so optimistic.
Chile goes to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president, with a possible draw four weeks later between the top two candidates. The campaign saw the alarming possibility that José Antonio Kast, a far-right populist who considers Pinochet his hero, could become the country’s next president.
When Kast, the son of a Nazi officer who served Hitler, launched his candidacy, I believed, along with most observers on the right and left, that his campaign was doomed. His opposition to divorce, abortion and gay rights, as well as his windowed responses to global warming, contrasted with what most of the country seemed to think. Kast also crusaded to preserve the old, autocratic constitution and supported pardoning some of Pinochet’s most egregious torturers, murderers and other agents, now serving long prison sentences for their human rights violations.
So how could this crypto-fascist end up as the next president of Chile?
Kast exploits the intense anxiety of what he calls Chile’s “silent majority” (shadows of Nixon and Trump!), Channeling and constantly provoking fears and anger about the country’s future and its identity.
Since 2014, more than a million immigrants (mostly from Haiti and Venezuela) have arrived in Chile (population, just over 19 million). Kast’s proposals to close Chile’s borders to “illegal immigrants” and build a trench to keep them out have been met with enthusiasm by nationalist voters who blame those economic refugees for increasing poverty and crime.
Crime is a related concern for families, associated with the fiery demonstrations that led to the constitutional convention, as well as an increase in violence in the region where indigenous communities are fighting for land and water rights stolen from them for centuries. Suddenly, “law and order,” a military candidate turns out to be ominously attractive.
The pandemic shattered Chile’s solidarity ties. Many citizens, tired 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 get enough votes to trigger a drain with Kast.
Boric is a member of Salvador Allende, the democratically elected socialist president of Chile overthrown in the 1973 coup that put Pinochet in power. He embodies the colossal social movement that has demanded an inclusive republic in which the livelihood and dreams of the majority are not subject to the interests of a privileged few, a new story of where the nation should go.
The preview Boric is neck and neck in the polls with the reactionary Kast. In a choice that increasingly favors security over innovation, the very trait I find most appealing in Boric – his willingness to acknowledge mistakes, his openness to dialogue – has often made him seem inexperienced compared to the reassuring father figure of Kast, a traditional Catholic with nine children of his own.
I am enthusiastic about the program of Boric, one of the most socially advanced in the world today – feminist, ecologically healthy, hardworking, dedicated to indigenous rights, firmly committed to democracy and participation – but I recognize that he will need immense skill to calm down . his powerful communist allies left recruiting the progressive center-left parties that led Chile through most of its post-dictatorial years.
Faced with a severe choice between the terrible past and a still-unmapped future – and struggling with the discontent and challenges facing so many countries, including the United States – what will Chile decide?
I can only hope that my country of origin offers the world a lesson on how to conquer the ghosts of fear, finding the courage when our hard-won democracy is in danger, to build a better and fairer social order, rather than retreat. in the shadows of authoritarianism.
Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean American author of “Death and the Maiden,” recently published the novels “Captives” and “The Compensation Bureau.” He lives in Chile and Durham, NC, where he is professor emeritus of literature at Duke University.