New Internationalist

Sebastián Piñera

May 2010

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera under the spotlight.


On 11 March 2010 Sebastián Piñera took office as the first elected rightwing President of Chile since 1958 – albeit with fewer votes than any successful presidential candidate since 1990. His narrow victory brought to an end 20 years of government by an electoral Concertación of centre-left groupings, many of whose voters appear to have stayed at home. The Concertación itself followed 17 years of brutal military dictatorship by the late lamentable General Augusto Pinochet who, prompted by the US, overthrew the elected government of Salvador Allende and Popular Unity (an electoral grouping not entirely unlike the Concertación).

Paradoxically, Pinochet chose to retain a significant legacy from Popular Unity, in the form of the copper industry it had nationalized – the largest in the world, on which Chile still relies for much of its wealth and the Government for much of its revenue. But the Concertación, in its turn, retained largely intact a legacy from Pinochet, in the form of neoliberal free-market policies first laboratory-tested in Chile by acolytes of the US high priest of laissez-faire economics, Milton Friedman.

It is improbable that Sebastián Piñera will do much to upset this idiosyncratic Chilean apple cart. But, granted his huge personal fortune, fabled arrogance and quick temper, no-one can be entirely sure.

Despite his claim to self-made success, Piñera was born into an élite family in 1949. His father was Chilean Ambassador to Belgium and the UN. A brilliant student, Sebastián followed a well-trodden post-graduate path to Harvard. Among his contemporaries was Larry Summers, the long-serving exponent of neoliberalism in the US. Piñera gained a PhD, returned to Chile and started teaching in its prestigious universities.

His personal ambitions, however, clearly lay elsewhere, and he soon set out in pursuit of them. In 1982 he was charged with violating banking laws during his time as general manager of the Bank of Talca. He went into hiding for 27 days to avoid arrest, until the Supreme Court acquitted him.

Then he spied his main chance. Chilean banks had struck a sluggish deal with Diners Club to issue the country’s first credit cards. Piñera, intimately attuned to trends in the US, claims to have toured dozens of retailers in the capital, Santiago, personally promoting Visa and Mastercard. He made a killing. He went on to acquire a controlling interest in Chile’s LAN Airlines, ownership of Chilevisión (a national television channel) and a stake in Colo-Colo, the country’s favourite soccer club. By now a billionaire, in 2007 he agreed to pay a $680,000 fine for insider trading in LAN Airlines stock, under protest that he was the victim of a political plot.

His likeness to Silvio Berlusconi in Italy became hard to ignore. Both combine a personal fortune and media power with populist, rightwing political ambitions that play very discreetly to a submerged fascistic inheritance. On the other hand, Piñera has been married for 36 years and has intellectual abilities that distinguish him from the more flamboyant features of Berlusconi. He has promised to create a million new jobs in Chile, while he spent a reputed $13 million of his personal fortune on his presidential campaign – in a country of just 17 million people. Piñera now describes himself as a ‘Christian humanist’ who seeks no rupture with the Concertación, at least on human rights.

He claims to have voted against Pinochet in the 1988 plebiscite that brought an end to the dictatorship. However, in the elections that followed (when he became a Senator) Piñera headed the presidential campaign of Hernán Büchi, a finance minister in the Pinochet regime. Two of his top campaign advisers held posts in the dictatorship and a third is a former Pinochet minister. Piñera plans to take his economic policy one step further than Pinochet by privatizing 20 per cent of Codelco, the nationalized copper company. While his predecessor, Michelle Bachelet, hesitated to involve the military in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake on 27 February 2010, Piñera called for its immediate deployment to restore law and order.

The impact of his election may well be felt more immediately elsewhere in Latin America. For the past decade a left-leaning electoral tide has swept the continent. However, Piñera’s closest ally is the reactionary Álvaro Uribe in Colombia who, together with Felipe Calderón in Mexico and Alan García in Peru, will now be in a stronger position to split the continent and stall progressive moves towards closer Latin American co-operation. A bitter historical dispute over Bolivian access to the sea is now less likely to be resolved.

In Chile, the malign ghost of Pinochet still stirs.

Sebastián Piñera Fact File
Sebastián Piñera
President of Chile.
‘Our very own Berlusconi.’
Sense of humour
‘Having worked honestly in any government is neither a crime nor a sin.’
Low cunning
In 1992 Piñera was secretly taped while conspiring with a friend to have a political rival, Evelyn Matthei, cornered during a TV show by a hostile journalist close to Piñera. The tape was later revealed to have been made illegally by a member of the military. Both Piñera and Matthei were forced by the ‘Piñeragate’ scandal to withdraw from impending presidential elections.

This column was published in the May 2010 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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