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A Generational Refresh in Chile

President-elect Gabriel Boric has presented Chileans with a cabinet that, at least photographically, depicts the change he is proposing for Chile.

Gabriel Boric Cabinet 2022
Patricio Aylwin Cabinet 1990.

Boric’s cabinet is meant to show first and foremost a commitment to gender equality, diversity, concern for social justice, and generational change regarding the environment. Thrown in is a nod to fiscal stability and the economy. A quick comparison of Patricio Aylwin’s cabinet in 1990 with Gabriel Boric’s of 2022 illustrates the change Of the 24 ministries, 14 will be led by women, including the very sensitive Ministry of the Interior. There is an openly gay minister, also one who is openly lesbian. The average age is 49, youngest 32, oldest 75. Twelve studied at the University of Chile; five at the Catholic University, a distinct flip from the prior government. Only 3 studied in US universities, none at Harvard or University of Chicago, so those Universities may no longer take the rap for all that is wrong in Chile, or the credit for what is right. Yes, Boric is changing the profile of public sector leadership in Chile. Admittedly it is early in the process, they do not take over for another month.

Boric quickly announced his choice for Minister of Hacienda, Mario Marcel (PhD Cambridge) a steady hand who is serving as president of the Central Bank under the outgoing Piñera administration. He is well thought of across the board, so his appointment should help calm the worst fears of the investor sector which is knee-jerk allergic to many of the government led social investments, government regulations, and taxation reforms Boric proposed during his campaign. At the Ministry of Economy, Nicolás Grau (PhD University of Pennsylvania) adds microeconomic expertise as well as the important areas of education and labor economics. The appointments of Marcel and Grau suggest the President-elect is well aware of the need for reassurances regarding fiscal responsibility and the importance of a sound economy to his government. Immediately following this announcement, the Chilean Peso strengthened against the US Dollar.

Presidents tend to form their inner circle with trusted friends, some include relatives (Piñera did both). In this sense, Boric is not too different, at least at this early stage of the formation of his government. Boric was brought up in Punta Arenas, the city that sits in the far south of Chile, in Patagonia on the Straights of Magellan. Of Croatian heritage, he represents the Chile that is not a product of the mega capital Santiago, nor the traditional power families which have pretty much run Chile for two centuries.

But Boric is a member, now the leader, of a very different, influential “clan”: the student protest movement which harassed occasionally the center left governments of Michelle Bachelet and constantly the center right governments of Sebastian Piñera. Boric’s closest allies from that protest movement will now be in his cabinet. His two close friends who evolved with him from the earlier street protests to positions in the Chamber of Deputies, Giorgio Jackson and Camila Vallejo, will be at his side from the start; Jackson in the role of interlocutor between the executive and legislative branches, and Vallejo as spokesperson. Vallejo built her reputation as the very young, excruciatingly attractive, sharply outspoken Communist who traveled the world excoriating the “neoliberal economic model” she and her cohort at the time blamed for increasing inequality and social injustice in Chile and throughout Latin America. She went on to join the Chilean Congress and calmed down a bit, but not a lot. For now, she is the face, and voice, of the new government.

Camila Vallejo; Boric government Spokesperson

One of the more interesting cabinet appointments is Izkia Siches as the Minister of the Interior. She is a medical doctor who went from the head of the Colegio Médico (National Association of Medical Doctors) where she was heavily involved in advising and pressuring the Piñera administration on the Covid-19 response, to help run Boric’s successful second round campaign. She is the first woman Interior Minister ever, and out of the gate faces explosive issues of nationwide violence, crime, and spreading narco-traffic. Add to that the need for serious attention to the Araucanía region where a long running struggle for indigenous rights continues unresolved to the detriment of all who live and work there.

When he was president of Chile (2000-2006), Ricardo Lagos made an eye-turning appointment to the Defense Ministry: Michelle Bachelet, daughter of an Air Force General who opposed the military coup led by General Pinochet in 1973. The blatant symbolism of that appointment was notable. She went on to become president of Chile twice before being named United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland. In an equally symbolic poke at the 1973 coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende, President elect Boric has named Maya Fernandez, Allende’s granddaughter, as Minister of Defense. She is a biologist and veterinarian, who has served as president of the Chamber of Deputies. Fernandez and Carlos Montes, named to be Minister of Housing, are two members of the Socialist party which ran its own candidate for president in the first round, against the Boric candidacy. But the Socialist party aligns will with Boric’s coalition, so he is slowly but surely bringing them into his cabinet to broaden political representation in his administration.

Boric broke with tradition by not choosing a lawyer to lead the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights; he chose Marcela Ríos, a sociologist and political scientist who at an early age lived and studied in Canada with her exiled family, went on to receive an advanced degree in political science from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and then went back to Chile to work for several years on justice and human rights issues for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). With this choice, Boric hopes to direct attention to the reform of important public institutions, most of which have lost credibility with the public. She will face a monumental challenge when the rewrite of the constitution is finalized later this year, most likely calling for complex legal and regulation adjustment to implement the institutional changes the new constitution will outline.

Begoña Yarza, pediatrician, will be Minister of Health. Although she comes from a political family exiled in Cuba during her childhood, Begoñia is independent of party affiliation. At 57, she is one of the most accomplished members of the cabinet-to-be. She teaches in the University, has directed significant hospitals, and is an acclaimed administrator of public health in Chile. She will immediately be thrust into the campaign to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, and address the resulting overload and backup in regular hospitalizations in public and private health care institutions throughout Chile. Although Chile has a comparatively effective public health system, the pandemic has drawn attention to its weaknesses, especially access and quality of care for the poorer segments of Chilean society.

Similar to Yarza in age, experience, and party independence, is the designee for Foreign Affairs Minister, Antonia Urrejola. After living in England with her exiled parents, Antonia returned to Chile to study law, then obtained advanced degrees in Spain. She has acclaimed expertise on human rights, democratization processes, and indigenous rights, having worked in most of the post-Pinochet administrations from Patricio Aylwin to Michelle Bachelet. She, like Boric, is committed to multilateral problem solving through international organizations. She was elected a member of the Organization of American States Human Rights Commission, which she ultimately led as president. Again, like Boric, she has been consistently critical of human rights violations and challenges to democracy wherever they may occur, including Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba, countries that some of Boric’s furthest left base is reticent to criticize.

The appointee for Environmental Affairs has a Doctorate from Oxford in atmospheric sciences, has been working on climate change issues in the university, was lead author for the Fifth IPCC report on climate change, and had a key role on Chile’s team preparing for COP25 (Chile held the presidency of this 2019 UN Climate Change Conference). They say she practices what she preaches, sans automobile, relying on her bicycle and public transportation to get around.

The designee for Minister of Sports was a member of the Chilean National Women’s soccer team. Her mother, a member of the revolutionary movement MIR, was killed during the Pinochet dictatorship.

Are you beginning to get the picture?

With his choices for the first cabinet, Boric has taken a significant step towards expanding his support in congress; “first cabinet”, because most surely before he completes his first term, he will be forced to do a reset. When Boric finally takes office, and the two houses of congress are seated, his Apruebo Dignidad coalition (essentially the Communist Party and the Frente Amplio that includes Boric’s party Revolución Democrático) will have 37 of 155 deputies, and 6 of 50 senators. By including members of the center left Liberal, Radical, PPD and Socialist parties in his cabinet, those parties join his government and he can pretty much count on 65 of 155 deputies, and 19 of 50 senators. He will still need to negotiate with other center left and center right members to pass his legislation.

The next step in this process of forming the government is to name the sub-secretarios in each Ministry. In Chile these are really vice-ministers, but they have chosen the term sub-secretario instead ( I am not sure why, but possibly to confuse gringos even more than we are). They are the ones who actually do the work of the ministries. Boric can broaden his support in congress by naming sub-secretarios from more parties, but since he broadened significantly his coalition with the Minister appointments, he most likely will have to revert to the coalition that is his base, and independents, for most of these next appointments.

Today, as I finalize this, Boric is meeting with his cabinet appointees, and members of the main parties supporting his government, to decide on the sub-secretario appointments, and to lay out the first steps they will take beginning on March 11, 2022. They need their “100-day” plan. Continuing Boric’s inclination towards symbolism (interesting, in someone so young), they have chosen to meet at the Casona Cañaveral event center, established at the retreat in Lo Barnechea, in the outskirts of Santiago on the road towards the ski resort of Farellones, where then-president Salvador Allende would slip off for a weekend with has most loyal and dedicated secretary “La Payita”, whose family still owns the property. Although it has recently been used mostly for wedding receptions, it is a place that still elicits strong memories of Allende’s Unidad Popular and its demise. Michelle Bachelet reportedly held a get together there for her staff after she turned over the presidency in 2018 to Sebastian Piñera.

We should not have to wait long to see if spirits still reside in Cañaveral, and if they move the Boric team towards cohesion and success.

Posted on January 28, 2022, in Santiago, Chile.

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David Joslyn
David Joslyn, after a 45-year career in international development with USAID, Peace Corps, The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and private sector consulting firms, divides his time between his homes in Virginia and Chile. Since 2010, David has been writing about Chile and Chileans, often based upon his experience with the Peace Corps in Chile and his many travels throughout the country with family and friends.
David Joslyn

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