Chile’s new president promises progressive social reform

New Chilean President Gabriel Boric is set to be sworn in on Friday as the country’s youngest ever president. Mr. Boric has big plans to transform the country’s market-oriented economic model with progressive social reform and a focus on fighting climate change. 

Luis Hidalgo/AP
Chile's President-elect Gabriel Boric greets supporters outside the town hall in Santiago, Chile, March 10, 2022. Mr. Boric is set to be sworn in on March 11, 2022 as the country's youngest ever president.

In Barrio Yungay, an edgy central Santiago neighborhood, an artist-owned sourdough bakery rubs shoulders with the Chilean city’s oldest barbershop and a mini-market with a flickering back light that sells vegetables, dairy products, and snacks.

Now the district will be home to a president, too, in a powerful sign of changing times in the Andean nation, where anger has risen in recent years over stark inequality and an entrenched ruling elite.

Gabriel Boric, a 36-year-old former student protest leader and lawmaker, will be sworn in as Chile’s youngest ever president on Friday, having pledged to rip up the country’s conservative, market-orientated rule book and push progressive social reform.

Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Boric has opted to live in downtown Santiago rather than the capital’s wealthy eastern zone of sprawling homes far from the dense city center and flanked by the Andes. Chile has no official presidential residence.

“It’s good and notable that the president is coming to live in real Chile,” said Beatrice di Girolamo, who runs the bakery, half a block east from new barricades for presidential security.

“There are all kinds of people here. Homeless people, people who are well off. There are ordinary people, elegant people. There’s a lot of immigration.”

Mr. Boric, the head of a broad leftist coalition who came from outside the mainstream political parties, rattled the establishment with fiery rhetoric last year about tearing up Chile’s market-orientated model, though has moderated his tone since winning a December election, talking up gradual change.

However, he has looked to set store as a progressive, with a majority female Cabinet for the first time in Chile’s history, strong support for LGBTQ groups, and a focus on fighting climate change.

Mr. Boric’s team declined to comment on his choice of new home, but the message is clear: making a break from past political leaders many say had become disconnected from the people.

Less garbage, more security

Amid Santiago’s high rises, Yungay stands out with colorful one- and two-story buildings and a medley of elaborate murals. Perfectly preserved buildings stand next to others with crumbling facades.

The area also hints at some of the challenges facing Mr. Boric, who will need to keep Chile’s economy humming even as he looks to bolster environmental regulation of mining, bring down inflation, raise taxes for social spending, and tackle fears about crime and immigration, key voter concerns.

Once an aristocratic neighborhood, the area is now home to a working-class community and a melting pot for immigrants from Peru, Venezuela, and Colombia.

Carlos Noriega, an owner of the Donde Carlitos mini-market on Mr. Boric’s new street, said in the last three years local crime has picked up. He said his store was robbed at gunpoint in 2020, a year after violent months-long protests broke out against inequality that many blamed on a constitution dating to the Augusto Pinochet-era dictatorship.

Mr. Noriega and others said the area’s new neighbor had already brought benefits: less garbage on the street, more security, and graffiti being painted over. Mr. Boric has passed by his store, he said, but he’s still waiting for him to become a customer.

Others said Mr. Boric would have to get used to the neighborhood’s rough edges.

Security teams have blocked off Boric’s busy street with gates and check every car entering, from government vehicles to beaten-up old Volkswagens driven by locals.

Eliza Pacheco, who lives in front of the president’s new building with her husband and daughter, said she felt safer now, though worried about street protests on her doorstep.

“He has to assume the consequences of anything that happens. That’s his responsibility,” Ms. Pacheco said. “He has to adapt to us, we don’t have to adapt to him.”

This story was reported by Reuters.

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