Two recent presidential elections in Latin America resulted in important milestones: Xiomara Castro is poised to become the first female president of Honduras, while Gabriel Boric, 35, will be Chile’s youngest president.
Beyond those historic occasions, there’s another remarkable dimension to the two victories: They represent a huge win for the Latin American left — both in the richest and in one of the poorest countries in the region. And while the politics of these distant countries may seem irrelevant to the United States, they mirror many concerns here, including the basic act of conceding an election.
“If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be his grave,” Boric famously said at a campaign rally. A former student activist turned leftist congressman, Boric is more of a European type of Social Democrat than a follower of Hugo Chávez-style socialism. The president-elect has vowed to fight Chile’s growing and notorious income inequality. He wants to reform Chile’s free-market economic model and favors expanding social protections for the poor, raising taxes on the wealthy, canceling student debt, and overhauling the nation’s private pension system to replace it with one run by the state.
Boric’s opponent was José Antonio Kast, a far-right extremist and a defender of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. Kast ran a polarizing and xenophobic campaign, singling out Haitian and Venezuelan migration as crime drivers. Naturally, Kast was often compared to Donald Trump. But in a break from the Trump model, Kast conceded defeat before the ballot count had ended. After Kast tweeted a photo of himself congratulating Boric in a phone call, Kast was the object of widespread praise, even here in the United States. It was jarring to see because Kast was doing only the bare minimum. A candidate conceding an election is a sad reminder of how low the political standards have fallen thanks to Trump.
In 2019, a wave of intense social protests rocked Chile to demand more equal access to education and health care. The next year, Chileans overwhelmingly voted to rewrite the Pinochet-era Constitution, a move that Kast opposed. To that end, the country elected a conventional constitution assembly with gender parity, the first of its kind. It’s clear Chileans are serious about realizing progressive democratic change, especially since the coronavirus pandemic worsened income inequality. Still, some feared the left and what it might bring to Chile, namely that leftist policies would end up killing Chile’s economic prosperity and that Boric’s calculated alliance with the Communist Party would backfire. But many observers argued, convincingly, that Kast and his brand of extremism would have been far more destabilizing for Chile than a Boric presidency.
Castro’s leftist win in Honduras is similarly significant. And it has more direct US foreign policy implications. In a country that has pushed hundreds of thousands of its citizens to migrate north because of rampant poverty, violence, and corruption, voters categorically rejected the incumbent political party that had ruled the small Central American country for 12 years. That party came into power after a US-backed coup in 2009 ousted then-president Manuel Zelaya, a leftist who was trying to change the Constitution to abolish presidential term limits and who made the United States nervous because of his ties to Hugo Chávez.
Castro — and you can’t make this up — is married to Zelaya.
Another head-scratcher: A few years after current president Juan Orlando Hernández was elected in 2013, he changed the Constitution anyway, ran for reelection in 2017, and won, although his reelection was marred by fraud allegations. Hernández is deeply unpopular because he has been an unmitigated disaster. Under his watch, government corruption has increased, poverty hasn’t subsided, and public money has been swindled. He is under investigation by US federal prosecutors; his brother was convicted of drug trafficking.
In a recent article in The New Yorker, Jon Lee Anderson wondered why a president’s involvement in drug trafficking wasn’t a bigger scandal, particularly if it’s the leader of a country that receives billions in US foreign aid and an American ally. “When I asked a US official with extensive experience in the region how Hernández got away with it, he replied bitterly, ‘Because we let him. We looked the other way,’ ” Anderson wrote.
Hondurans voted overwhelmingly for the potential they saw in Castro. She supports relaxing the country’s strict abortion laws and, crucially, bringing back an international anti-corruption commission that had been dissolved by Hernández.
The victories of Castro and Boric mark a new day for democratic socialism in Latin America — and US politicians should pay attention. Chilean voters sent a compelling and urgent mandate, one that’s hard to disagree with: Something different must be done to treat crippling income inequality. Hondurans, exhausted and burdened by widespread poverty and institutionalized corruption, have also had it. Chileans and Hondurans want to live in “a more-just society for everyone,” as Boric said the night he won. Don’t we all?