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LATIN AMERICA | 08-02-2024 01:02

Sebastián Piñera: the ‘locomotora’ that return the right to power in Chile

Former president and businessman, who led Chile for two terms (2010-2014, 2018-2022), was nation’s first right-wing leader of post-Pinochet democratic era.

Former Chilean president Sebastián Piñera, who died Tuesday in a helicopter crash, was an astute multi-millionaire who governed Chile for two terms, the latter tainted by a social outburst and corruption accusations.

A former shareholder in the Chilean airline LAN (today the international carrier LATAM), a television channel and the Colo Colo football club, Piñera was the nation’s first right-wing president since the return of democracy after the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

A conservative billionaire, Forbes magazine estimated his assets at US$2.4 billion.

Enthusiastic and always active, Piñera – who turned 74 last December 1 – held a doctorate in economics from Harvard University and was known to pilot his own helicopter.

Married to Cecilia Morel, a father of four children and with nine grandchildren, he served as president of Chile twice, between 2010 and 2014 and between 2018 and 2022.

"He will have all the republican honours and recognition he deserves," said Interior Minister Carolina Tohá on behalf of the left-wing government of President Gabriel Boric, as news of the death broke.

Son of a Christian Democratic ambassador, he was the only big businessman in Chile to openly oppose Pinochet. Elected senator at the return of democracy, Piñera aligned himself with the centre-left in key votes in Congress, and was therefore viewed with distrust by sectors of the radical right.

One of the keys to his early political success was distancing his right-wing coalition from Pinochet's 17-year dictatorship, allowing him to later unseat the centre-left parties that dominated Chile for 20 years. 

Piñera, one of the few right-wingers to vote against Pinochet in a crucial 1988 plebiscite and helped mould a new right more focused on economic liberalism than Catholic conservatism and authoritarianism.

A renewal leader within the right in the so-called "Patrulla Juvenil” (“Youth Patrol”), he earned the nickname "La Locomotora,” or locomotive, in those days.

In his first government, Piñera headed the reconstruction of the country after the powerful earthquake of February 27, 2010, and the successful rescue of the 33 copper-miners trapped inside a mine in the Atacama desert. True to his style, he toured the world, spreading a message of life from workers trapped inside a copper mine in the Chilean desert.

Piñera won his second term in 2017 under the slogan "Únete a tiempos mejores” (“Join better times”) but his second stint in La Moneda was less fortunate. Piñera endured four years of social storms, a collapse of trust in institutions and a deep disconnection between society and the elite.

Chilean politics and society  took a radical turn after the social outburst of October 2019. Mass protests triggered by a subway fare hike were transformed into a broad outcry against a free-market model with the state absent when it came to education, health, pensions and social welfare.

The coronavirus pandemic and economic recession followed this period. When signs of recovery gave the president some breathing space, the publication of the so-called ‘Pandora Papers’ on the 2010 sale of the Minera Dominga mile by a company owned by his children, tarnished his image once again. 

State prosecutors opened up a criminal investigation against Piñera and the opposition presented charges in Congress. He was found not guilty by a slim margin.


– TIMES/BLOOMBERG/AFP

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