Gabriel Boric on Leading Chile and Updating Its Constitution

GAbriel Boric steps into the huge black SUV parked outside his home. It’s a cold morning in mid-August—winter in Santiago—and the Chilean President is enveloped in a slightly-too-long gray coat, making him look even younger than his 36 years. As the car rolls through city streets, windows down, pedestrians spot him on his way to work and let out whoops or an affectionate “Presi!” Boric laughs and waves, but then bows his head to nervously scan the front pages of Chile’s newspapers.

There’s plenty to be nervous about. Since taking office in March, Chile’s youngest-ever leader has been shepherding his country through a moment of historic uncertainty. For decades, Chile was touted as Latin America’s economic success story, with a business-friendly, small-government model creating relative wealth, and political stability, for its 19 million inhabitants. This narrative did not reveal the deep-rooted anger that many Chileans feel. They struggle to survive on their own, without much government support or expensive private services. A small increase in subway fare caused a flurry of angry protests that lasted months. Then politicians agreed to replace Chile’s constitution, a dictatorship-era document that underpins its market-driven economic system.

Continue reading: Read the Transcript of TIME’s Interview With Chile’s President Gabriel Boric

Boric, Chile’s most left-wing leader in half a century, owes his presidency to that upheaval. He was elected in December 2021, promising to lead Chile’s transition into the fairer country demanded by protesters. Five months into his term, it’s crunch time: in a Sept. 4 referendum, Chileans will vote on whether to approve a new constitution that offers sweeping progressive reforms, from a new health system to tighter controls on the mining industry. Boric and other supporters say that it would improve Chile’s democracy and provide equality for all groups. However, opponents claim that it would cause economic destruction.

The millennial president finds himself in the middle of a midlife crisis, and is now guiding his country. “It’s a lot of responsibility, for sure,” Boric says after arriving at his bright, cluttered office in La Moneda, Chile’s presidential palace. “But I wake up every morning excited to keep working on this.”

Photograph by Luján Agusti for TIME

Boric’s rise is part of a regional shift to the left. After a decade of right-wing domination, leftists have recently won power in five of Latin America’s six largest economies, many on platforms to fight inequality. Brazil may be the largest country to join the leftists after the October elections.

Boric, however, is not a new concept. An older generation of Latin American leftists, including many still active today, have often made troubling sacrifices—disregarding the environment, democracy, or human rights—in pursuit of a socialist society. Boric claims that these issues are an integral part of his progressive philosophy. And although he became famous in Chile in his 20s as a shaggy-haired, radical student leader, today’s Boric is no firebrand—even if some may want him to be. “I think that as a society we should aspire to forms of organization that go beyond capitalism, but it’s not like I can say, ‘Capitalism ends today,’” Boric says, rapping the table with his knuckles, in a brief imitation of more militant figures.

In person, Boric is warm and quick to laugh, but he’s not relaxed. There’s an intensity buzzing beneath the surface. He sometimes keeps a notebook and pen handy for notes during his time with TIME La Moneda. His brow furrows as he listens to the conversation. He squints his eyes as though he is chewing hard on math problems when he receives criticism. Sometimes, he will agree to disagree. “You have to keep doubting yourself, and listening to others, or you’ll forget why you’re here,” he says, in a rapid tumble of Chilean Spanish. “Sometimes that means going a little more slowly. I always say: we’re going slowly because we’re going far.”

It all depends on how far the September 4th vote goes. Some Chileans have a growing sense that Boric is letting their country go off the rails: inflation is at a 28-year high, the peso’s value at an all-time low, and violent crime is surging. Boric’s approval rating stands at 38%, and polls now suggest that a majority of voters plan to reject the new constitution—a major blow to his agenda. The world will be watching what happens to the President. “If Boric succeeds, I think it will have tremendous influence beyond Chile’s borders,” says Brian Winter, editor in chief of Americas Quarterly. “It will show that a new kind of leftist leader is possible.”

Boric examines his smartphone in the hallway of La Moneda’s presidential palace, Aug. 12.

Luján Agusti for TIME

Boric was raisedPunta Arenas is a town of approximately 116,000 inhabitants in southern Patagonia. The wind blows so strongly that the streets are lined with railings. The eldest of three boys, Boric was more bookish than his brothers, spending hours as a child reading novels brought home from work trips by his father, a Chilean engineer of Croatian descent—hence the pronunciation Bor-itch. Boric loved adventure stories, especially tales with charming pirates or children fighting off monsters.

But when he was 12 he came across a fantastical story that didn’t make sense to him. Augusto Pinochet (the dictator that ruled Chile for 17-years) had been detained in London. It was 1998. Boric saw several women protesting the news. They claimed Pinochet made their family members disappear. How could he make someone disappear, Boric wondered, if he wasn’t a magician?

Continue reading: Chile Is Resolving to Get Rid of the Pinochet Era Dictatorship

He traded novels for history books to find the answer: in 1973, Chile’s military, led by Pinochet, had violently overthrown the country’s democratically elected Marxist President, Salvador Allende, installing a right-wing regime in his place. Pinochet received support from the Nixon Administration. This was an organization that was determined to prevent the spreading of left-wing ideology in the Cold War. By the time Chile’s dictatorship ended in 1990, it had tortured and imprisoned nearly 30,000 opponents and executed 2,279. Another 1,162 victims were never found.

Learning about Pinochet sparked Boric’s political interest in his teens. He soon discovered other ways in which Chile’s dark past still loomed over its present. Pinochet, with the help of a group of right-wing U.S. economists, had turned his country into a laboratory for neoliberalism—a philosophy that sees free-market capitalism as the solution to all of society’s problems. (Decades later, during his election campaign, Boric would pledge that “if Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it’ll also be its grave.”) Pinochet shrank the role of the Chilean state, favoring private enterprise in the provision of education, health care, pensions, and even water.

Chile’s system has since lifted millions out of poverty. According to the World Bank, the percentage of Chileans who live on $5.50 per day decreased from 30% to 6.4% between 2000 and 2017. “That was important. But at the same time we were building a really unequal society,” Boric says. There is an increase in the cost of living and services have been reduced to a two-tiered system where those with more money are able to enjoy high quality. Boric, his brothers and 6 out of 10 Chilean high school students have to pay tuition. “When I knew the history, I understood that the privileges that you have in a society as unequal as Chile are sustained by the fact that others don’t have them. It made me really angry.”

He expressed his anger as many teenagers do: he wore grungy pants and a lumberjack shirt, and grew out “the little facial hair I could,” he says. He got into punk and rock music: Pearl Jam, Metallica, Tool, Chile’s Los Prisioneros, and Argentina’s Charly García. (He still listens to music “almost constantly” and says rock dominates his playlists, despite the reputation he gained as a “Swiftie” when he tweeted support for Taylor Swift, after meeting her Chilean fan base: “They adopted me. I like. Red, Folklore, ‘Cardigan.’ But it’s not the style of music I’m most into.”) Over meals, Boric would debate politics with his centrist father, and share “mediocre” poems he had written.

Boric found ways to express his feelings. In 2000, at 14, he helped relaunch Punta Arenas’ high school student union, at a time when Chile was experiencing a revitalization of the student movement. This once powerful political force was repressed in Chile by Pinochet, before fading away in the 1990s during a time of relative political apathy. Boric’s generation brought it roaring back. He was twenty-years old and studying law at University of Chile Santiago. While there, he participated in months of protests and construction occupations as a student to get a fair education.

Boric with students leaders in 2012.

Fernando Lavoz—NurPhoto/Getty Images

Boric, who was then 25 years old, became well-known. That year, during another mass mobilization of hundreds of thousands of students, he was elected leader of Chile’s national federation of student unions. After his victory, an excited Boric told reporters that young people were tired of “the government and the political class, who want to commercialize all aspects of our lives.” A movement was coming, he said, “which would transform not only education, but the entire country.”

The movement won a few wins over the years. Boric was one of four student leaders who won Congress seats in 2013. Congress consisted at the time of 158 legislators. However, change was slow under the center-left President Michelle Bachelet from 2014 to 2018. That’s partly because of Chile’s rigid constitution, written under Pinochet in 1980. Though it doesn’t explicitly endorse neoliberalism, it acts as a kind of ideological straitjacket by making many legislative changes dependent on approval by a constitutional court and a large majority in Congress. A system of electoral politics that favors deadlock makes it difficult for those to be found. In 1979, the constitution’s writer said he aimed to “restrain whoever is governing” so that “if our adversaries get into power, they’ll be forced to take actions not so different to the ones we’d want.”

For long periods, it looked like nothing was capable of breaking through the stagnation. Then, from October to December of 2019, roughly 3 million Chileans—some 16% of the population—took to the streets, led by students and other young people. Some protests turned violent, setting fire to city center and forcing police to respond with brutality. Around 30 people died and hundreds were imprisoned by the government of right-wing President Sebastián Piñera. Now, this period is called the social explosion.

Continue reading: For protesting inequality in Chile, I was shot and lost my sight. Continue to Demand Justice

Boric, then in his second term as a Congressman, joined some of the protests, sharing many of the organizers’ concerns. He was not the same activist he had been in his 20s. “We couldn’t just be agitators,” he says. “We had to offer an alternative, something to channel the conflict in some direction.”

That thinking led Boric, in November 2019, to champion an agreement with Piñera and other politicians to hold a referendum on whether or not to launch a project to replace the Pinochet-era constitution. It was controversial: left-wing politicians largely rejected the deal, fearing a constitutional process led by Piñera, a 72-year-old billionaire, would be designed to prevent real change, and represent a betrayal of the imprisoned protesters. Boric was sitting on Santiago’s park bench when he was attacked by a group young protesters. They emptied beer cans above his head and threw them at him. “You sold us out,” they shouted. Boric remains still in the video. “I was reflecting in that moment,” he recalls. “They were accusing me of something that I didn’t believe I had done. And I still don’t. But it was hard, and it wasn’t the only time.”

For many, though, Boric’s willingness to work with political rivals legitimized him as a viable leader. Chile’s first referendum was held in October 2020. 78% of the voters voted to change its constitution. Then the time came to replace Piñera as well, at scheduled 2021 presidential elections. A surprise outcome in July 2021 saw a left-wing electoral alliance choose Boric over a Communist Party candidate who opposed the agreement. In December, at the second round of the presidential election, Boric won 56% of the vote—a lead of 12 percentage points over José Antonio Kast, a far-right lawmaker with ties to the Pinochet regime.

Stephania Escobar (a woman in her 50s who sells handicrafts at central Santiago markets) was one of those who voted Boric. “It’s a big collective task we have on our hands. But he’s like a bridge,” she says, “a bridge to the changes we want to make.”

TIME asked Chileans to define their President. cercano (close) because Boric’s political style is less formal than most. Boric is open about his battle with obsessive. TIME spoke with him about how he gained weight in his campaign. He started boxing every morning before going to work.

Continue reading: Chile’s Protest Reflect Our Unequal Times

Boric lives closer to Chileans than most. There is no country president’s residence. Previous leaders who were elected mostly in their 60s or 70s have preferred the posh areas to the north and Santiago. After his election, Boric and his partner Irina Karamanos—a 32-year-old feminist activist he began dating in 2019—moved into a modest house in Yungay, a central neighborhood. They live in homes that are deteriorating and are populated by students and families. The President’s team grumbles that he insists on walking to buy bread nearby, causing a minor security headache. Boric also attempted to make Boric’s office more accessible. Boric reopened the public square that had been closed to La Moneda and spoke with most of those who gathered at it every day.

It can sometimes feel contrived. But Tomás Boric, 29, the President’s youngest brother, says the down-to-earth image reflects what he saw growing up. “Most people spoke to me like a kid, but Gabriel never did,” he says. “He listened to me. He took his time with me. He does that for everyone.”

Boric celebrating his win with his supporters, on December 19.

Felipe Figueroa—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Boric finds a new homeHe is now leading a social experiment. For decades, Latin America’s vast gap between rich and poor—one of the largest in the world—has stunted economies and fostered disruption: rapid swings from right to left, guerrilla wars, strongmen, coups, and corruption. In Chile, many hope that rewriting the constitution could address inequality in a uniquely democratic way—and perhaps serve as an example for other nations. “I feel so lucky to have been born at this time,” says Ericka Ñanco. Elected to Congress in November at age 29 to represent the southern Araucanía region, she is one of the youngest members of Boric’s coalition. “In other eras, the dreams of young people were crushed. Now we have the opportunity to change things.”

The new constitution was drafted by an assembly of 155 representatives, chosen at a special election in May 2021: 77 are women, and 17 are from Chile’s Indigenous communities, proportional to their 13% share of the population. Proponents of the new constitution say it imagines a better country, one that balances economic development with workers’ rights, environmental protections, and gender equality. It particularly emphasizes the rights of marginalized groups, including the autonomy of the Indigenous peoples, who were not even recognized in Pinochet’s constitution, over their own cultures, land, and institutions. The document calls for drastic changes to Chile’s political structures, as well as new national health care and education systems (private operators would remain, but with more oversight). In August, an international group of prominent progressive economists said the draft “prepares Chile for a new century of equitable growth.”

However, not everyone can be certain of this outcome. Winter Americas Quarterly says “the hope is that Chile is able to achieve developed world status in the next 10 or 20 years,” if it can reduce inequality, a major barrier to development. “I think that’s very much on the table. But the fear is that Chile will lose what made it an imperfect success story over the last 30 years.” That is, it could trade its stable market-driven economy for the stagnant, inflation-prone chaos of its neighbor Argentina, hurting poor as well as rich Chileans.

Continue reading: Gabriel Boric: The Leftist Millennial Who Could Lead One of Latin America’s Wealthiest and Most Unequal Countries

Kenneth Bunker is a Chilean pollster who finds the constitution too flawed to be accepted. He sees it as a mishmash of the 155 assembly members’ diverse priorities. “It over-regulates so much that there will be a lot of fights about enacting it.” There are also specific concerns: a plan to abolish the Senate, for example, would leave many pieces of legislation subject to only one chamber’s approval, undermining Chile’s consensus-based political culture. Conservatives also worry about the scope of spending proposals: Economist dubbed the document “a fiscally irresponsible left-wing wish list.” Some in Chile argue the document does not accurately reflect the wishes of the general population because turnout for the elections for the constitutional assembly was only 43%. The majority of representatives elected came from the center or left-leaning blocs. According to Chilean media, many others came from progressive-leaning parties, and less than one third were right-leaning.

Boric admits that parts of the text are unclearer before becoming law. “There are always things that could be improved, and we’re having that debate,” he says. “But it’s a big step forward for Chile.” He is urging voters to approve it, promising Congress will reform the document after it passes.

It’s unclear if that will happen. The new constitution’s opponents have launched an effective misinformation campaign online and on paper leaflets, in addition to the legitimate debate. Among the false claims circulating are that the draft would abolish Chile’s police force, ban the sale of bottled water, allow abortion at any stage of pregnancy, and outlaw private property. Many voters are trusting others to help them interpret the text because it is 170 pages long. The most ardent opponents claim that adopting it would be Chile’s first step toward becoming the new Venezuela—whose socialist economy has imploded over the past decade—and that Boric is enthusiastically leading them down that path.

It may be true that Chile’s Communist Party makes up a fifth of Boric’s coalition in the lower house of Congress. The President is a member of the Social Convergence Party’s more left-leaning Social Convergence Party and his goals are closer to European social democracy. “I don’t see a state controlling everything like in the socialisms of the 20th century, which failed,” he says. “We have to take ownership of that failure.”

Deeply marked by the memory of the Pinochet regime, Boric is outspoken about violations of democracy and human rights—whether they come from the right or left. He has criticized far-left leaders in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua who have embraced authoritarianism—a break from older leftists in the region, who tend to keep quiet about abuses on their own side. Boric says this with a deep sigh. “I can’t get outraged when rights are violated in Palestine but not in Nicaragua, because when the defense of human rights is partial, it loses legitimacy. In Chile, we’re going to do things differently.”

The president peeks out from the balcony of the presidential house, Palacio de la Moneda, Aug. 12—the same one he used for his speech on the day of his inauguration as president.

Luján Agusti for TIME

The streets of theBoric, with his extravagantly-upholstered furniture and the high-ceilinged corridors at La Moneda (a colonial museum where presidents have lived since 1800), can seem a bit out of place. He could be a hipster barista, with his trendy beard and tattoos peeking out of his shirt, or maybe a young -professor— a studious type who reels off suggested reading lists on request.

Many Chileans love the idea of a young President. Boric, along with his former students activists are fighting the perception that they and their team seem inept. Some episodes feel like minor misfires: in rethinking the role of First Lady, Boric’s girlfriend briefly renamed her office “Irina Karamanos’ Cabinet,” leading to claims that she was personalizing the institution. Boric’s decision to leave his fly at an official meeting was ridiculed by right-wing media. (“Now I’m always worried when I’m getting out of the car,” he says.)

Boric made serious U-turns, however. He submitted to the pressure of his left in April and proposed that Chileans could withdraw funds from their pension accounts, even though he was concerned about increasing inflation. Congress rejected the plan. “He seems to draw a line in the sand. And then something happens and he has to follow others back over it,” says Bunker.

Security has been the most significant omission so far. As a Congressman, Boric condemned Piñera’s decision to deploy the military to Araucanía, where small separatist groups from the Indigenous Mapuche community are engaged in a violent conflict with forestry companies. In high-profile incidents, security forces killed several Mapuche citizens. But in April, Boric remilitarized the region’s roads. The apparent about-face left the impression that Boric’s team doesn’t know what it’s doing, according to Salvador Millaleo, a Mapuche lawyer. “They did not prepare enough,” he says. “They underestimated both the importance and complexity of this issue.”

Boric says his government “may have been a bit headstrong” in its initial approach to the conflict. “I am still convinced that the state of emergency is not the solution,” he says. But, he adds, “I am the President of all Chileans. So sometimes I have to do things I don’t like.” He pauses and, speaking slowly, disagrees that his U-turns indicate a failure of leadership. “Changing your position isn’t a weakness, as long as it’s coherent with your principles. I’m more concerned about people who can never change their mind.”

Boric hopes Chileans will not change their mind about the Constitution’s rewrite. The national transformation Boric desires will start if voters approve the Sept. 4 draft. Congress will then embark on an arduous project for years to create new legislation. Boric claims that if they vote against it (as polls indicate they will), the massive mandate of the October 2020 referendum still applies: Chile will start from scratch and hold elections to elect a new constitutional assembly. Some parts of his agenda might be left behind if this happens.

But Boric says there’s still a lot he can do for Chile in the meantime. Boric’s government recently announced that a bill would be introduced to reduce the working week from 45 hours to 40. They unveiled major tax reforms in July to increase levies on the highest earners and capital gains as well as mining companies. And after Congress approved a climate law in March, Boric’s Environment Minister, a climate scientist, has begun drawing up Chile’s plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

Continue reading: An Indigenous Rights Leader Is Trying to Rewrite Chile’s Constitution to Put its Ecosystems First

Boric is also able to exercise a wide range of discretion when it comes to foreign policy. Boric stated that he would like to shift regional relations away from ideological alliances of the 20th century and towards cooperation in climate action. A key aim is to band Latin America together “under one voice” to pressure richer countries to cut their emissions faster. That could include “making the exports of raw materials or clean energy conditional on changes in consumption behavior in more developed countries,” he says. Chile has large reserves of lithium and copper, which are essential to the development of renewable technology like electric cars. He wants to attend October’s U.N. climate conference in Egypt to begin those discussions, he says. “Everyone has a responsibility, but some are more responsible than others. And we have to demand they meet theirs.”

Boric’s birthdayAs he prepared for his presidential portrait, in the months leading up to his inauguration in March of this year, he and his staff looked through all his predecessors. They all seem to have a different era. 19th century colonial liberty fighters in uniform, early 20th Century land barons with elegant bow ties. In 1970 Allende was sitting in a chair, unaware of the consequences for his government. Then came Pinochet. Another military man who was determined and sure of his control over Chile. Finally, the slick-suited statesmen—and woman—of the neoliberal era.

Boric was sure of one thing: he wouldn’t wear a tie. The Chilean press was not surprised that he had foregone ties for years. The dress code for leaders has changed over the centuries, he says, from “French kings in high heels and stockings” to “Barack Obama sitting on top of his desk.” He’s pretty confident that in 20 years, more Presidents will have nixed the tie. “I’m part of a transition here.”

His photo ended up being a picture in which he stands a little stiff in front the Pacific Ocean. It’s impossible to know what teleological meanings people will draw from it in a few decades. Are you sure this is the president who lost a referendum after only a few short months? The one who blew up Chile’s economy and lost control of its security? Or the one who transformed his country and created a new model for Latin America’s left? Boric seems less inclined to predict the future. “You can’t worry about how history will unfold,” he says. “If you do, you’ll get dizzy.”

— With reporting by Solcyre Burga and Anisha Kohli/New York

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