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Chileans vote in runoff election for new president


Chile is at a crossroads. Today, voters there will decide who will be their next president. It's a runoff between two very different men, one from the far right, the other from the left. NPR's Philip Reeves set out into the countryside to one small community, asking how people there feel about the contest shaping their nation's future.


PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: I'm standing at a little cove surrounded by a small village. There are brightly colored fishing boats pulled up onto the sand. There are kids - one or two kids playing on the beach. The water is this deep, luminous blue - crystal clear.

This is Quintay. It's a two-hour drive west of Chile's capital, Santiago. The two places couldn't be more different.

There are seagulls sitting on the rocks watching and also big pelicans. This is another side of Chile away from the cities. It's gorgeous.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: In Quintay's tiny harbor, fishermen hose down their boats and gut their catch. Today, it's mostly an eel-like fish called congrio, chief ingredient of a favorite Chilean soup, caldillo de congrio.


REEVES: The men toss the scraps into the sea for the gulls and pelicans to fight over. About 1,000 people live here. The community is dominated by a handful of families, says Manuel Segundo Alvarez. That includes his own.


REEVES: "We're all related here," says Alvarez. "Cousins, brothers, uncles." Alvarez is 59. He remembers the brutal dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, an era that's been praised by Chile's far-right presidential candidate, Jose Antonio Kast.

M ALVAREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "We don't want to return to those times," says Alvarez. Yet Kast's leftist rival, Gabriel Boric, is a former student leader who's only 35. Neither candidate has enough experience, says Alvarez.

M ALVAREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "I'm not optimistic about Chile's future," he says. Alvarez's brother Javier is nearby cleaning cuttlefish. Javier is president of Quintay's fishermen's union and skipper of a small boat called Noah's Ark. He also worries about the future and especially the impact on fishing of climate change.

JAVIER ALVAREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "Sea swells are far greater these days," he explains. Walk out of the harbor, up a little hill and you reach what used to be a big whale processing factory. It closed in 1967 and is now a museum.


REEVES: With videos showing how whales harpooned in these waters were hauled onto the key and chopped up. Back then, the village stank of rotting fish and the water was full of grease. Now everything's clean again. Tourists flow in via the one small winding road linking Quintay to the highway to Santiago. When COVID caused havoc in Santiago, locals blocked the road.

DANIELA CARACHON: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "The blockade lasted a couple of days," says Daniela Carachon, who runs a diving center here.

CARACHON: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "Eventually, the police made them reopen the road," she says. So far, Quintay's only had a couple of COVID cases. Up that same road lies a world now roiled by the presidential election race. Carachon does not like what she's seeing.

CARACHON: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "Both candidates are too extreme for me," she says. Two years ago, in Santiago up that road, mass protests erupted and went on for weeks. They were over inequality, including a feeling that a powerful elite monopolizes Chile's riches at everyone else's expense. This issue resonates loudly in Quintay.

JUANA ALVAREZ BERNAL: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: We've come to a bungalow by a dirt road near the village's Catholic church. This is Juana Alvarez Bernal's home. She's a fisherman's daughter, born and raised here. She gets by by selling handicrafts. Bernal can remember when this place wasn't even on the map.

BERNAL: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Bernal worries Quintay won't be able to preserve its way of life for much longer. Money has poured into the area over the last few decades. Now just outside the village, there's a luxury condo complex and a major golf course. They've snapped up precious water rights and driven up property prices, says Bernal. She says rich city folk are buying up land, but she'll never sell, no matter what they offer.

BERNAL: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "Sell your home and you're selling out your own people," she says. Ask her about the election...

BERNAL: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "I've no idea who to vote for," she says. In the election's first round last month, Jose Antonio Kast from the hard right came first with 28%. He was two points ahead of the young leftist, Gabriel Boric. Today's runoff will be determined by who wins the center ground and the undecided, people like the villagers here in Quintay who hope for the best for their country but fear the worst. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Quintay, Chile. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.