27 Mar 2022

Elections in Chile: President Boric and his foreign policy facing the Middle East

Said Chaya

Introduction

In Chile, the President of the Republic is the head of the executive power and is elected for four years, without the possibility of immediate re-election. Last December, the student leader Gabriel Boric, aged 35, was chosen as President of Chile with 56% of the votes, after defeating José Kast, of the Republican Party, in a second ballot. Boric, who was the candidate of a left-wing coalition called Apruebo Dignidad, took office on March 11th, replacing Sebastián Piñera, who completed his mandate after two non-consecutive presidencies.

The presidential elections took place in a very particular context. In 2019, after a sudden increase in the cost of public transport tickets, a broad student mobilization took place in Santiago and other Chilean cities. This movement later extended its discontent to other key issues, demanding reforms on health, education, and pension systems. The protests, which involved clashes between police and protesters, included looting and thirty-four deaths. To stop the rising violence, President Piñera decided to call a national plebiscite in 2020, proposing a constitutional convention to reform their Carta Magna. The proposal received massive support, with 78% of the population voting in favor of the reform.

The current constitution in Chile is a consistent symbol of its darkest times. In 1973, a military junta led by General Augusto Pinochet came to power, overthrowing the democratic government of Salvador Allende. In 1980, the dictatorship issued a new constitution. After the departure of Pinochet in 1990 and the advancement of democracy led by a coalition of moderate parties called Concertación, some adjustments to the charter, such as the abolition of life Senators, were made, though without reforming it in depth. Following the 2019-2020 protests and the reform process that started in 2021, President Boric now has the responsibility of putting the new constitution into effect.

Chile and the Middle East

Chile has one of the most stable economies in Latin America. Along with Uruguay, it has the highest per capita income in the region, and is also the fourth-largest economy after Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina. In addition, the essentially open nature of its economy has allowed it to establish highly dynamic free trade areas over the last twenty-five years with relevant partners, such as the European Union, the United States, China, and India, and more recently with other Asia-Pacific leading economies, such as Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. Chile is an active member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The main export sector is mining (copper, lithium, and iodine, of which it is the world’s largest producer), followed by agriculture (grapes, apples, and blueberries) and fishing (trout and salmon). The United States, China, Argentina, and Brazil are, in that order, its main trading partners.

Although at first glance the ties between Chile and the Middle East do not seem relevant, there is a strong historical relationship ongoing. A significant number of Arab immigrants from Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine arrived in the South American country from the end of the 19th century through World War II, and later around the time of the creation of the State of Israel, on the occasion of the so-called Nakba. Currently, it is estimated that some 800,000 people of Arab origin live in Chile, of which two-thirds have Palestinian roots. Among the institutions founded by the Arabs in the country, the earliest and most renowned ones are Saint George’s Cathedral, founded in 1917 and dependent on the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch; Palestino Sports Club, a first division soccer team created in 1920 and very popular among the Chileans; and the Islamic Center, founded in 1926, and its Al-Salam Mosque. A significant number of Arab cultural houses were also erected, mainly in Santiago, such as Club Sirio Unido (1928) and Círculo Libanés (1943).

Chile maintains diplomatic relations with numerous countries of the Middle East. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs runs embassies in Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, and Palestine, and concurrent offices in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Tunisia. Occasionally, the Chilean government also participates in Arab League meetings as a permanent observer.

Starting in the 21st century, Chile began to pursue a more active approach policy towards the Middle East. In 2004, President Ricardo Lagos visited Turkey, and then Egypt one year later, becoming the first Chilean head of state to visit a MENA country since Salvador Allende, who toured Algeria in 1972. In addition, Michelle Bachelet participated in a diplomatic summit in Qatar in 2009. Later, Sebastián Piñera visited Palestine and Israel in 2011 and 2019, Jordan in 2011, and Turkey in 2012.

La Moneda, the Presidential Palace in Santiago, also received illustrious guests from the MENA region over the last decades; the President of Turkey Süleyman Demirel, who visited in 1995, being the first. Soon others followed: His Majesty King Hassan II of Morocco (2004); Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (2005); His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan and his wife Queen Rania (2008); Kuwaiti Prime Minister His Highness Sheikh Nasser Al-Muhammad Al-Sabah (2010); Vice President of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al-Maktoum (2014); and the President of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas on different occasions (2005, 2009, 2018).

This active approach policy towards the Middle East was further boosted within a multilateral, regional context. In 2005, at the request of Brazilian President Lula da Silva, the first summit between the members of the South American organization UNASUR and those of the Arab League was held in Brasilia, to promote educational-cultural cooperation, articulate positions in international forums, and study forms of greater economic integration between both regions. It was the first exercise in multilateral diplomacy between the two regions of the so-called “global south”. These meetings, which received the name of ASPA (in Spanish, América del Sur y Países Árabes – South America and the Arab Countries) were held again in Doha (2009), Lima (2012), and Riyadh (2015). In all cases, Chile actively participated in its sessions through its highest authority, the President of the Republic, in each case. Political crises in Venezuela and Brazil prevented the meeting in Caracas from being held in 2018, and the mechanism was weakened just as it was about to establish a permanent Secretariat.

Decisions to be made

According to Vagni[1] and Baeza,[2] it is possible to identify some central axes that have defined Chile’s relationship with the Middle East in the last decade. Each axis focuses on a different aspect of its foreign policy. The president will have to make a statement on these matters at some point.

A) Increasing commercial relations:

On the one hand, there are commercial issues. Since in the Chilean economy the primary sector is taking the lead, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is especially focused on generating new markets to sell its products. Over the last decade, the Chilean strategy has been to concentrate its efforts on the Gulf countries and put on hold, for now, relations with the nations of the Levant, including Syria and Lebanon, with whom it has maintained historical ties. In other words, war and political instability have deterred the country from taking a more comprehensive look at the Middle East, instead preferring to focus its efforts on the Gulf.

Although as of 2020 the commercial exchange with the United Arab Emirates represents only 0.21% of Chilean exports,[3] the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has deliberately chosen that country due to its enormous potential to serve as a pivot for Chilean relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), in which it has enormous interest. From the accredited embassy in Abu Dhabi, the Ambassador attends to the affairs of the other member countries of the organization: Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. In addition, the Undersecretary for International Economic Relations opened an office of the ProChile investment agency in Dubai in 2014. In a similar vein, and with the intention of alleviating the existing logistical challenges between the Middle East and South America, Emirates airlines began flying to Santiago in 2018, with Qatar Airways following suit shortly after. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to some of these services being suspended; however, it is expected that normal operations will resume once the pandemic crisis subsides.

Surprisingly, Chilean diplomacy has not been able to establish a free trade agreement with the Middle East, a treaty that has been pursued at least since 2010. This delay has an explanation. Even though Chile is, according to the World Bank,[4] among the fastest-growing economies in Latin America, foreign businesses have still had to deal with old bureaucratic structures and very restrictive property and construction permits. According to Baeza,[5] this was a setback for major Gulf funds interested in purchasing land to invest in the food market through agriculture. In his second term, starting in 2018, President Piñera focused on simplifying taxes in order to enhance private foreign investments. The law was approved in early 2020, easing negotiations with Gulf countries.

Meanwhile, the commercial exchange between Chile and the GCC grew at an average rate of 3.6% between 2003 and 2020.[6] In the search of the long-awaited trade agreement, significant progress has been made in recent years. The year 2020 was marked by the visit of the Chilean Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Teodoro Ribera, to the United Arab Emirates, while in 2021 the Undersecretary of International Economic Relations, Mr. Rodrigo Yáñez, toured Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar. At the end of Yáñez’s visit, the long-desired memorandum of understanding was signed between Chile and the GCC Secretariat, with a view to developing studies to assess the feasibility of a free trade agreement between the parties. The document highlights the value that a potential agreement with Chile would have for the member countries of the GCC, which would essentially facilitate their access to the markets of East Asia and the United States through Chile’s membership at APEC. This economic forum is an exceptional platform through which Chile has achieved rapprochement with other partners, such as the European Union and the Republic of Peru. If President Gabriel Boric succeeds in finalizing a commercial agreement with the GCC, it may provide him with the tool he needs to boost Chile’s economy.

B) Limits in multilateral cooperation:

The revolutions and protests that occurred in the Middle East and North Africa around the so-called “Arab Spring” (2010-2012) generated certain tensions within the South American bloc, fundamentally after the harsh responses of certain states during the uprisings. In this sense, South America has a democratic tradition and respect for human rights that has been consolidated in the last thirty years or more, particularly after the fall of the military dictatorships in the region. Such is the case, for example, of Peru (1980), Bolivia (1982), Argentina (1983), Brazil (1985), Uruguay (1985), Chile (1990), and Paraguay (1993). While the ASPA meeting in Lima (2012) did not address any issue related to the Arab Spring, the session in Riyadh (2015) barely mentioned the Syrian issue, only praising the work of the United Nations. The promotion of multilateralism within an open agenda, a characteristic of the ASPA meetings, proved to have certain limits. This situation met with other issues that further complicated ASPA-Arab League relations. First, there was the dismissal of the President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff in 2016, heiress of the political ideas of Lula da Silva, the promoter of the ASPA initiative. Second, there was the disputed presidential elections of 2018 in Venezuela, which was at that point unable to organize the ASPA summit. The lack of Latin American unity on these issues contributed to the growing difficulties in presenting a joint position towards the Arab League.

ASPA and its multilateral strategy was in a slowdown mode, as the approach promoted by UNASUR was falling apart. However, Chile decided to take its own way by engaging directly in bilateral negotiations with the GCC members. This was not very different from what Argentina or Brazil did, but the collective negotiations between the two large blocs, UNASUR and the Arab League, appeared to be at a standstill. In the meantime, Chile successfully achieved its goal by sub-regionalizing its approach to the Middle East, focusing on strengthening its ties with the GCC.

Boric’s election to the presidency of Chile provides an opportunity for a more comprehensive view of the Middle East, much more so if Lula finally returns as president of Brazil after the elections in October of this year. During his presidency (2003-2010), and that of his heiress Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016), the Brazilian foreign policy focused on South-South cooperation, promoting linkages with emerging markets, encouraging the role of international organizations, and reinforcing political relations with its neighbours, with the particularity of the President’s strong charisma. These efforts represented his will to sustain the national autonomy of Brazil from the influence of the north and consolidate a leading role in Latin America. Boric is willing to follow Lula and is not interested in taking his place as the rallying figure between South America and the Arab countries. That would allow Boric, for the time being, to continue to focus on economic negotiations with the GCC, while resuming the political profile of multilateralism with the Arab League under the Brazilian umbrella. The possible victory of the left in the Colombian elections and the Argentine President Alberto Fernández, who still has two years in office, could contribute to this vision.

C) The Palestinian issue: 

A sensitive issue on the Chilean foreign agenda is the situation in Palestine, given the large population of Chileans of Palestinian origin living in the country, themselves an organized, powerful, and resourceful pressure group with whom the government must deal. The Chilean government has always supported the Palestinian cause, without neglecting its economic ties with Israel.

With Boric, the Chilean position on the situation in Palestine will surely gain traction. In October 2019, the then President-elect stated on Twitter that Israel should “return the illegally occupied territory”[7] annexed from Palestine; and in October 2021, he claimed that “Israel is a genocidal and murderous state.”[8] At the same time, his party promoted the boycott of Israeli goods produced in the occupied territories. With a much higher profile than his predecessors, this issue promises to take on a greater role during his term, since, as a candidate, he promised to take more explicit positions in the defence of human rights and international law on the Palestinian issue. Meanwhile, the designated Minister of Culture, Dr. Julieta Brodsky, also claimed on social media that “Israel is a genocidal state, period.”[9] This situation will certainly generate clashes with the Embassy of Israel accredited in Santiago.

D) Chile-Iran ties:

The third political underlying objective of Gabriel Boric will be concerned with the relationship with Iran, a state that has maintained unique relations with Chile. Although diplomatic ties were established in 1903, it was not until 1974 that Chile opened its embassy in Tehran. At that time, the dictator Augusto Pinochet and Shah Muhammad-Reza of Iran were trying to deepen their relationship, as both required international support.[10] The Islamic Revolution of 1979 interrupted the diplomatic connection between the two countries, which was re-established in 1990 after Pinochet departed from the presidency. In the first decade of 2000, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began to negotiate the return of Chilean-Iranian relations into a more favorable regional framework, where Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, and other governments showed friendliness to the regime in Tehran.

Finally, in 2015, after the Nuclear Agreement was negotiated with the American authorities in Washington, President Michelle Bachelet ordered the reopening of the diplomatic headquarters in the Iranian capital. A year later, the former foreign minister, Muhammad Javad Zarif, visited the country on a trade mission. However, it is important to remark that is not in Boric’s interest to challenge the United States, which serves as the main market for Chilean exports and is the most important foreign investor in the country; Chile is, as well, the only country in Latin America that benefits from the United States’ Visa Waiver Program. Chile has a great relationship with the authorities in Washington, and it will not risk it because of Tehran. Until now, the interests of Chile in Iran seem to be solely commercial. Since the normalization of their relations in 1990, Chilean exports to Iran have been growing at a rate of 4.18%,[11] in a balance of payments with a high deficit on Iranian goods. Although it is not ruled out that he intends to improve ties with Tehran, the President will see how negotiations on the Nuclear Agreement and Iran’s ties with the GCC progress before taking decisive steps.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the arrival of Gabriel Boric to the Presidency of Chile may bring some changes in its foreign policy towards the Middle East, expected from a leftist leader. A more explicit support to the Palestinian cause and the return of multilateralism between Latin America and the Arab League are possible expectations of political change. However, relations with Iran will be set aside, maintaining its status quo so as to avoid any collision with their main commercial partner. Hence, Boric may leave the trading strategy almost untouched, since it will not abandon the path that has brought Chile commercially closer to the Gulf, especially now that progress has been made in foreign investment and food exports. Recently, the support of middle-class sectors was secured by the appointment of Mario Marcel, a moderate social-democrat and current president of the Central Bank, as Minister of Finance. Marcel is close to Piñera. This seems to be the best guarantee that the economy will not take sharp turns during his term.

References

[1] Vagni, J. J. (2009). La Cumbre América del Sur-Países Árabes (ASPA): balances de un acercamiento estratégico. Revista de Estudios Internacionales Mediterráneos, (8). https://revistas.uam.es/reim/article/view/822/810.

[2] Baeza, C. (2016). Chilean Foreign Policy Toward Arab Countries: Between Trade Diplomacy and Affirmation of Principles. In Kuri, M. T. (Ed.) Latin American Foreign Policies Towards the Middle East: Actors, Contexts, and Trends. Palgrave-Macmillan: pp. 59-76.

[3] Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (2020, January 20). Minister Teodoro Ribera: Increasing Commercial Exchange with the United Arab Emirates and Attracting Its Investment Funds Is a Priority for This Ministry. https://minrel.gob.cl/minrel/news/minister-teodoro-ribera-increasing-commercial-exchange-with-the-united.

[4] The World Bank. (2022). Overview: Chile. https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/chile/overview#1.

[5] Baeza, C. (2013). Le rôle du Moyen-Orient dans les nouvelles relations internationales de l’Amérique latine. Mouvements, 76(4): pp. 25-36.

[6] Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2021, February 24). Chile Signs Historic First Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Trade Matters with Gulf Countries. http://www.sice.oas.org/TPD/CHL_GCC/CHL_GCC_MoU_e.pdf.

[7] Boric, G. [@gabrielboric]. (2019, October 3). Agradezco el gesto pero podrían partir por pedirle a Israel que devuelva el territorio palestino ilegalmente ocupado. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/gabrielboric/status/1179498192985116672?s=20&t=MRRPZLS8KlVccyK6Gc1Tzw.

[8] Boric, G. [@ibraspal]. (2021, December 20). Israel é um estado assassino e genocida. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/Ibraspal/status/1472871431956570115?s=20&t=MRRPZLS8KlVccyK6Gc1Tzw.

[9] Maisuls, G. (2022, January 22). ‘Israel es un Estado genocida y punto,’ de la nueva ministra de cultura de Chile, Julieta Brodsky. Identidades. https://identidades.com.ar/nueva-ministro-de-cultura-de-chile-julieta-brodsky-israel-es-un-estado-genocida-y-punto/.

[10] Padilla, F.C. (2016). El régimen militar chileno e Irán: de las relaciones con el sha Muhammad-Reza Pahlavi a los negocios de la guerra Irán-Irak, 1974-1986. LASA Forum, 47(1). https://forum.lasaweb.org/files/vol47-issue1/Debates4.pdf.

[11] OEC. (2019). Iran/Chile. https://oec.world/en/profile/bilateral-country/irn/partner/chl.

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