Last month, left-winger Gabriel Boric was elected Chile’s new president in a runoff against far-right candidate José Antonio Kast. In an uncertain climate following the massive popular protests in 2019, a referendum to change the constitution inherited from Augusto Pinochet’s regime, and the decline of the traditional parties, Boric won the popular vote, backed by a broad center-left coalition.
In the days following his election, Boric’s life story came under the scrutiny of the global media, and his victory was especially publicized by the press in Southeastern Europe. Boric is the descendent of Yugoslav immigrants who settled in southern Chile at the end of the nineteenth century, and, after his leading role in the 2011 student protests, he became a congressman for Magallanes — a district with a significant population with family ties to Croatia’s Dalmatia region.
Boric has time and again recognized this Yugoslav background as part of his own identity. But, much like the icy water in the southern town of Punta Arenas from which he hails, Boric is just the tip of the iceberg in a long story of connections between Yugoslavia and the Chilean left. Many years before Boric’s rise to prominence, socialist Yugoslavia helped define the ideas and the activity of Chilean socialism — leaving a rich legacy to which the new president may add further chapters.
Yugoslav Workers in Latin America
At the root of Yugoslavia’s connections with Latin America is a movement of workers, in the most literal sense. The story begins in the late nineteenth century with the massive emigration of poor peasants and unskilled workers from Southeastern Europe to Latin America, especially the lands of the Southern Cone.
Several thousand Yugoslavs, mostly coming from the territories of present-day Croatia (at that time under Austro-Hungarian rule), settled in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia, and southern Brazil, in search of a better life. This influx continued in the early twentieth century, intensified by the 1924 US Immigration Act restricting the number allowed to enter the country. As a result, Latin America became the promised land for thousands of Yugoslav migrants, some 150,000 of whom lived on the subcontinent by 1928. Their numbers would continue to grow over the 1930s, as the newly founded Yugoslav state faced internal tensions and an uphill struggle to develop its heavily agrarian, imbalanced, and dependent economy.
World War II brought a historic turning point in Yugoslavia — and so, too, in the scope and composition of its nationals’ presence in Latin America. After the Axis invasion of 1941 and the fall of the Karađorđević monarchy, the region had seen the creation of a German protectorate in Serbia and the fascist “Independent State of Croatia.” But then came the successful partisan war led by Josip Broz Tito’s Communist Party and the formation of a federal, socialist Yugoslavia. This in turn resulted in the departure of widespread masses of anti-communist and ultranationalist political émigrés to Latin America, most of them of Croatian or Slovenian background and often former fascist collaborators.
The influx of several thousand such émigrés post-1945 radically changed the Yugoslav presence in South America. Yet even this varied across countries: while Argentina was a massive receiver of such immigrants, who became politically dominant in the Yugoslav, and especially Croatian, diaspora — making Buenos Aires a hub for fascist Ustaša activities and, indeed, global anti-communism — the Yugoslav community in Chile was more immune to such influence. Perhaps due to its relatively better social position, the fact that most came from the less radicalized and less “Croatianized” region of Dalmatia, or perhaps due to the lesser influence of fascist ideas in Chile compared to Argentina, the Croatian community in this country was less conservative and generally more pro-Yugoslav, as it would remain until 1991.
Yet this is not just a story of migrant workers and fascist collaborators but also one of militants with a strong belief in democratic socialism. In the Cold War years, connections between Chile and Yugoslavia would become deeper than ever, as relations hardened between mutually sympathetic movements.
The Non-Aligned Movement and Global Socialism
In 1948, after a series of clashes with the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia was expelled from the community of socialist states. Threatened with isolation in an increasingly polarized world, Belgrade set out to expand its network of allies beyond European shores. The recently decolonized nations of Asia and Africa, as well as the economically dependent nations of Latin America, became a priority in Yugoslav foreign policy. With time, and in tandem with other rising African and Asian powers, such as Nasser’s Egypt and Nehru’s India, Yugoslav endeavors in what would later be known as the “Third World” would lead to the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961, an alternative project for dependent countries seeking to increase their margin of maneuver in the polarized context of the Cold War.
The main center of Belgrade’s action in Latin America was Chile. The reason for this was not so much the presence of a large Yugoslav diaspora but rather the fact that Chile was home to the Popular Socialist Party (PSP), a radicalized and resolute Marxist party that was also inspired by ideas of Third Worldism, popular nationalism, and radical anti-imperialism. In 1952, the Chilean socialists took the initiative to make contact with the Yugoslav delegation in Santiago to express their interest in the Yugoslav socialist model. At a time when Belgrade sorely needed allies, the PSP’s initiative was almost heaven-sent. From then on, Yugoslavs and Chileans developed a close political friendship that would have a deep impact on the history of the Chilean left.
In following years, the Chilean socialists published Yugoslav works in Spanish for Latin American readers, Yugoslav representatives came to Latin America for regular visits, and Chilean socialist leaders such as Raúl Ampuero and Salomón Corbalán also crossed the ocean to see the achievements of Yugoslav socialism for themselves. These visits had a powerful impact on Chilean socialist ideas, the most remarkable surely being the one by intellectual Oscar Waiss and senator Aniceto Rodríguez in 1955 — an experience that Waiss recounts in his travel journal Amanecer en Belgrado (Dawn in Belgrade). This made Yugoslav self-management and its role in the Non-Aligned Movement models for much of the Chilean left.
Chile thus became the main foothold of Yugoslav activity in Latin America. The Chilean Socialist Party frequently participating in Non-Aligned conferences, Chilean students benefited from scholarships to come to Yugoslavia, and Yugoslav-background Chilean politicians like Christian Democrat Radomiro Tomic Romero also made friendly visits to the country. When, in 1963, Tito decided to make a tour in Latin America to promote nonalignment and nuclear disarmament, Chile was one of his most important destinations. The visit gave him the chance to have official talks with conservative president Jorge Alessandri, but also to have extensive meetings with the Socialist Party and the local Yugoslav community.
With the radicalization of the Cold War in Latin America — especially after the wave of US-sponsored military dictatorships that swept the continent in the 1960s and 1970s — Yugoslav influence began to wane. Yet the solidarity between Chilean and Yugoslav socialists remained strong even in these turbulent times. The Yugoslavs visited Chile several times during Salvador Allende’s socialist administration, expressing their support for one of the most progressive governments on the continent, and, incidentally, it was Chilean-Yugoslav economist Pedro Vuskovic who assumed the position of minister of economic affairs in Allende’s administration. Perhaps most importantly, Belgrade did not hesitate to give refuge to dozens of socialist militants who escaped the Pinochet regime’s repression after the bloody coup d’état of September 11, 1973. Socialist Yugoslavia was thus honoring its loyalty to one of the most resolute, courageous, and democratic socialist projects ever to materialize in Latin America — and one that Belgrade itself had helped fashion.
Boric and the Invention of the Nation
After a long and bloody dictatorship and several decades of neoliberal administration, the current Chilean context is certainly not the same as in the 1970s. What is more, socialist Yugoslavia not only ceased to exist but did so in one of contemporary Europe’s most violent and fratricidal conflicts. Yet the coming to power of Gabriel Boric, a democratic socialist militant of Yugoslav background, might be an omen of better times to come.
In the days following last month’s election, Boric’s background was the subject of much discussion in the media and on social networks. Even decades after the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s — in which elites in almost all republics exploited the federation’s economic inequalities and remnants of nationalism to fuel ethnic conflict and turn themselves into winners of the transition — questions of national identity remain hotly contested. Many insisted that Boric was not of Yugoslav but rather Croatian origin. Yet in so doing, they disregarded not only the fact that his family left Dalmatia at a time when Croatian identity was almost nonexistent among ordinary residents, but also the fact that Boric has himself underlined the importance of Yugoslav identity to his life.
As with many people in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, Boric’s personal relation to his background and identity is surely complex and contradictory. As he recounted in an intervention in the Chilean Congress, in 2014, paying tribute to Croatians who settled in Chile, his world was turned upside down in 1991, when he was five years old and all references to Yugoslavia in his hometown disappeared overnight. The “Yugoslav club,” the “Yugoslav school,” and the “calle Yugoslavia” in his southern Chilean hometown all changed names to become “Croatian.” “I am not Croatian, I am Yugoslav,” Boric told his grandmother during a family meal, who became severely upset. Only years later, Boric claims, did he come to understand his grandmother’s sadness amid the conflict then ravaging the Balkans, in which Croatia’s territory was being openly invaded by the same army that had sworn to defend it.
If anything, Boric’s speech shows how deeply entangled Croatian and Yugoslav identity are, even at the level of the social and cultural imaginaries of those with some connection to the former Yugoslavia. Boric finished his speech recalling “that old verse that our grandparents sang every night to those of us who never stepped foot on Croatian soil.” He also cited “Tamo daleko” (There, far away), a well-known Serbian folk song from the times of World War I, likely based on an older Balkan folk ballad common to many in the region. It is probably the clearest sign that national identity can mean different things in different times.
Ultimately, Boric will remain a Croat for some and a Yugoslav for others. But in either case, he is a socialist for all — renewing the historic link between the Left in Chile and the land of his forefathers.