Santiago (AFP), March 11 – Former left-wing student activist Gabriel Boric was sworn in as Chile’s youngest president on Friday and hailed the country’s former Marxist leader Salvador Allende in his inaugural address to the nation.
In front of tens of thousands of supporters at La Moneda Palace in the capital Santiago, the 36-year-old said Allende – who killed himself in 1973 after Augusto Pinochet’s coup – had foreseen this moment .
“As Salvador Allende predicted almost 50 years ago, we are compatriots again, opening up great avenues where free men and women will pass to build a better society. We continue ! Long live Chile! he said.
“We wouldn’t be here without your mobilizations”, launched the new president to the crowd, who chanted “Boric, friend, the people are with you!”
Boric, who plans to transform Chile into a greener and more equal “welfare state”, takes the reins of a country demanding change following mass protests in 2019 – which he supported – against the deep-rooted inequalities in income, health care, education and pensions.
The protests, which have left dozens dead and hundreds injured, have been the catalyst for an ongoing process to rewrite Chile’s dictatorship-era constitution.
Boric has vowed to relegate “to the grave” Chile’s neoliberal economic model, which dates from the era of military despot Pinochet and is widely seen as marginalizing the poor and working classes.
One percent of Chile’s population owns about a quarter of its wealth.
Despite concerns over his Frente Amplio (Broad Front) political alliance with the Communist Party in a country that traditionally votes centre, Boric won a surprise election victory last December.
He succeeded in mobilizing women and young people, with a record turnout giving him nearly 56% of the vote to beat far-right Pinochet apologist Jose Antonio Kast.
The men, political strangers from the antipodes, had voted neck and neck before the vote.
As the stock market fell on news of Boric’s victory, he pledged in his first official speech to “extend social rights” in Chile, but to do so with “fiscal responsibility”.
– Generational change –
Boric was sworn in on Friday in Valparaiso, the seat of Congress, in a suit but no tie, appearing to hold back tears of emotion as he received the presidential sash from his predecessor Sebastian Pinera.
He expressed a “great sense of responsibility and duty to the people” of Chile.
“We will do our best to meet the challenges we face as a country,” the new president said.
“Hope for the people,” read a sign carried by Maritza Lopez, a 62-year-old housewife who made the trip to Valparaiso from Coronel, hundreds of miles away.
Legislator since 2014, the millennial Boric inherits an economy ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.
Much of the GDP growth in 2021 was fueled by temporary pandemic subsidies and temporary withdrawals allowed by private pension funds.
The central bank raised interest rates to curb inflation.
Pinera ends his term with a 71% disapproval rating, the worst for a president since the return of democracy in 1990.
Boric promised to introduce European-style social democracy in Chile, raising taxes to pay for social reform, while curbing spiraling debt.
He will meet these challenges with a cabinet composed mainly of women and young people – their average age is 42 years old.
The team includes two comrades with whom Boric, as a student, led nationwide protests in 2011 for free, quality education.
Boric’s defense minister is Maya Fernandez, the granddaughter of Allende, Latin America’s first elected Marxist president, who was ousted in Pinochet’s 1973 coup.
Six cabinet members were born, lived or studied in exile during the Pinochet years.
– ‘Fragmented political climate’ –
Analysts say Boric’s arduous task will be complicated by a Congress roughly evenly split between left and right parties.
That means a lot of negotiation and compromise will be needed to pass laws to make his plans a reality.
“It is a government that comes to power in a very fragmented political climate, which does not have a parliamentary majority and therefore cannot make very radical reforms in the short term,” political scientist Claudia Heiss told AFP. from the University of Chile.
The new president’s Large Front party has never been in government.
More than 20 international guests attended the inauguration ceremony, including the presidents of Uruguay, Argentina and Peru, King Felipe VI of Spain and Colombian presidential hopeful Gustavo Petro.
Also in the audience was university student Gustavo Gatica, who lost his sight when he was injured by rubber bullets during the 2019 protests.