How Chile’s new president can avoid the mistakes of past leftist leaders

EVEN BEFORE covid-19 struck, many Latin Americans were disgruntled at their countries’ slow growth, poor government and corrupt politics. Their discontent has shown in big and sometimes violent street protests across the region and in voting for whichever party is in opposition. That trend has brought a crop of left-of-centre leaders to power. The latest is Gabriel Boric in Chile, who is due to take office on March 11th. If the polls prove accurate, he could be joined by two fellow leftists, Gustavo Petro in Colombia in an election in May and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s former president, who may stage a comeback in October. Though different in many ways, these leftists have enough in common for regional pundits to talk of a new “pink tide”.

A dose of centre-left rule might, in theory, reduce deep inequality and bolster welfare states whose shortcomings were cruelly exposed by the pandemic. Alas, the Latin American left has long suffered from the vices of populism and authoritarianism. That showed during a previous “pink tide” in the early years of this century. Left-wing leaders generally failed to bring about lasting beneficial change. In some places they did harm. Hugo Chávez and then Nicolás Maduro turned Venezuela into an impoverished dictatorship, while Daniel Ortega has made Nicaragua a corrupt police state. Other leftist leaders, too, sought to nobble the judiciary and to stay in power indefinitely.

True, poverty fell and inequality declined during the region’s “pink tide”, but that owed as much to a commodity boom as to innovative social policy, although there was some of that. Too often the priority was to hand out more government jobs, rather than improve the quality of public services. Most of the leaders neglected productivity and economic growth. Some, such as Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina and Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s chosen successor, all but bankrupted their countries. Over-regulation and protectionism scared off private investment. Many, including Lula, presided over corruption, though that was not a monopoly of the left.

The new crop of left-wing leaders, some of whom are the same as before, should be mindful of those mistakes. Mr Boric will be tested from the start. Aged 36, he is of a generation whose first taste of Chilean politics involved furious protests against steep university fees. Young Chilean radicals have swiftly displaced the staid centre-left coalition that governed Chile reasonably well for much of the past three decades. Happily, Mr Boric gives every sign of being a democrat. He has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as well as human-rights abuses in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. He has invited to his inauguration Sergio Ramírez and Gioconda Belli, Nicaraguan writers exiled by Mr Ortega. He wants to set up a European-style universal welfare state in Chile, to create a more cohesive society and a more educated workforce. He speaks in favour of greenery and against racism and sexism. Those are good priorities.

Yet there are reasons to worry about Mr Boric. His government may waste money on industrial policy and regulate business so much that it cannot prosper. Meanwhile, a convention is writing a new Chilean constitution. Set up to defuse social conflicts, it has a large contingent from the far left. It may come up with an unworkable, Utopian and anti-capitalist document. Its committees have proposed to nationalise all mines and abolish the Senate, for example, though those bombshells are unlikely to make it into the final text. The convention is autonomous, but Mr Boric’s team has influence over it. They should argue for a pragmatic document that commands a broad consensus. They cannot achieve their other goals without a buoyant economy.

That Chile succeeds matters to Latin America as a whole. A downcast region needs a path that combines social justice, economic growth and democratic freedoms. That is what the left should aim to provide.