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Chilean presidential candidates Gabriel Boric, of left-wing coalition 'Apruebo Dignidad' (I Approve Dignity), and Jose Antonio Kast of the far-right Republican Party, pose for pictures before a live televised debate ahead of December 19 second round presidential elections in Santiago, Chile, December 13, 2021.

Elvis Gonzalez /Pool via REUTERS

Chile is no longer boring

My Chilean friends won’t love this, but I’ll say it anyway: for a long time their country’s greatest virtue was that it was sort of boring.

A stable, prosperous, reasonably centrist country surrounded by perennial economic or political basket cases, Chile was the staid uncle with the nice watch. The khakis-and-a-button-down country with the green mountains and the unexpectedly good soccer team.

Goodbye to all of that. This Sunday, 19 million Chileans face one of the most extreme choices that any Latin American presidential election has thrown up in years.

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What We're Watching: Right-winger on the rise in Chile

Right-winger on a roll in Chile: José Antonio Kast, an ultra- conservative politician who pines for the days of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship, has ridden a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment to the top of the polls ahead of next month's presidential election. He's currently at 21 percent, one point ahead of leftist former student leader Gabriel Boric. Talk about political whiplash: it was just a few months ago that Chileans elected a broadly leftwing constituent assembly to rewrite the country's Pinochet-era constitution in the wake of mass protests about inequality. But Kast, an avowed free-marketeer and social conservative, has tapped into rising resentment against the vast numbers of migrants – in particular from Venezuela and Haiti – who have arrived in the country in recent years. Last month, for example, saw an outbreak of violence against Venezuelan refugees in the northern city of Iquique. Kast has called for digging ditches along the borders and wants a special police force to root out illegal migrants. In the last presidential election, Kast got less than 8 percent of the vote. This time he's making a race of it.

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