Chile: Sebastian Pinera Takes Helm of Quake-Rattled Nation

Article excerpt

By Benjamin Witte-Lebhar

Two decades of leadership by the center-left Concertacion coalition came to an official end March 11, when Sebastian Pinera, a conservative billionaire businessman and onetime senator, donned Chile's presidential sash for the first time in what turned out to be literally an earth-shaking event.

Just minutes before the start of the ceremony, held in the Congress building in Valparaiso, a series of powerful tremors rippled through central Chile, putting a natural exclamation point on a transfer of power already loaded with historic significance.

Not only did Pinera's inauguration swing the country to the right for the first time since the end of the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), it also came less than two weeks after Chile suffered its worst natural disaster in half a century: a magnitude 8.8 earthquake that struck Feb. 27 (see NotiSur, 2010-03-12).

"Certainly nobody predicted, much less wanted, this government to begin in such tragic and adverse circumstances," Pinera said in his inaugural speech, delivered, as tradition dictates, from a balcony in Santiago's La Moneda presidential palace. "But this situation, far from breaking or weakening us, makes us stronger and united. If before we said we'd do things well, today we'll have to do them even better. If before we said we'd work with a sense of urgency, now we work with a sense of pressure. If before we said we would be close to the people, today I tell you we will make your hardships and hopes our own."

Quake shifts already changing political landscape

The quake, one of the largest in recorded history, affected a huge swath of central and southern Chile, killing some 500 people and causing an estimated US$30 billion in damage. It also left its mark on the country's already shifting political landscape, altering the balance of power and upending the new president's priorities.

Pinera narrowly won Chile's Jan. 17 presidential election on promises he would snuff out crime, end government corruption, improve healthcare and education, and create a million jobs (see NotiSur, 2010-01-22). All of that now takes a back seat as the president and his conservative Cabinet, dubbed the reconstruction government, confront the more pressing task of lifting a broken and battered Chile back on its feet.

The government, which has already promised the unusual step of modifying the 2010 budget, said it will ease environmental and building rules to facilitate reconstruction and modify the tax structure to encourage private donations.

But while the catastrophe certainly presents Pinera with a monumental challenge, it also provides a unique political opportunity, say observers. For starters, according to Jose Jara, director of the Chile branch of the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), the disaster gives the president some breathing room when it comes to his own lofty goals.

"The government can modify its agenda," said Jara. "[Pinera] will have excuses not to follow through on his priorities. He said he'd create a million jobs, that he was concerned about the environment. All that now gets pushed to the background."

The devastating earthquake also gives the new president what until recently seemed an unlikely chance of making good on his promise of unified leadership.

In his first speech after beating Concertacion candidate, senator, and former President Eduardo Frei (1994-2000), Pinera announced a "second transition" for Chile. The first transition--from dictatorship to democracy--was steered initially by President Patricio Alwyin (1990-1994) of the Democrata Cristiano (DC), who was praised for bridging the gaping political divide left by Pinochet's heavy-handed military regime. It was in the spirit of Alwyin, Pinera explained when naming his Cabinet last month, that he chose veteran Concertacion member Jaime Ravinet as his defense minister (see NotiSur, 2010-02-19). …