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Chile's Pinera takes reins, though he's not in charge yet

President-elect Sebastian Pinera doesn't take office until next week, but he is already acting like a leader in charge amid Chile's post-quake turmoil.

March 05, 2010|By Daniel Hernandez
  • Chilean President-elect Sebastian Pinera tours a disaster site in Concepcion, one of many he has visited since the earthquake. He has also been directing relief efforts--and criticizing the current president's response.
Chilean President-elect Sebastian Pinera tours a disaster site in Concepcion,… (Francesco Degasperi / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Santiago, Chile — A week before he takes office, Chilean President-elect Sebastian Pinera is already operating like a man in charge as his nation reels from one of history's strongest earthquakes. He is directing relief efforts, touring disaster sites, appointing Cabinet members -- and gently criticizing the way his soon-to-be predecessor has handled the disaster.

Pinera, 60, who is one of Chile's wealthiest investors, on Thursday noted what he found to be the "weaknesses, discoordination and deficiencies" in the quake response efforts led by outgoing President Michelle Bachelet.

"We will not be the government of the earthquake," the silver-haired Pinera said, speaking at his former campaign headquarters as he announced his appointments of officials to govern six of Chile's regions. "We will be the government of reconstruction."

It was lost on no one that his appointee to head the region surrounding hard-hit Concepcion, Chile's second-largest city, was that city's mayor, one of the most vocal critics of Bachelet.

Pinera will assume the presidency Thursday as the first conservative to lead Chile since the end of a brutal military dictatorship two decades ago. Yet the devastating earthquake that struck Saturday has created a delicate and unexpected political atmosphere for both the president-elect and Bachelet, a heretofore popular leader now on the defensive.

Roughly half of Chile's population is too young to have much or any memory of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship, having known only democratic governments led by the center-left coalition now represented by Bachelet. Some are not sad to see the current leadership go.

"I was born in '93; I've only seen Concertacion," 17-year-old Job Jorqueta said, referring to Bachelet's coalition. "I like this Pinera because it's a change. It was time for a change."

Job, who won't be eligible to vote until his next birthday, was one of a dozen teenagers gathered in the courtyard of the National Institute, a public high school in downtown Santiago, where they were briskly boxing up food and other supplies for quake victims.

Educated at Chile's most prestigious Catholic university and at Harvard, Pinera, a billionaire former senator, rode a wave of discontent with the center-left establishment to a 3-point victory in the runoff election in January. In his campaign, he promised to return Chile to its "golden age" of growth, from 1985 to 1995, when the economy grew by about 6% a year.

Pinera promised to "modernize" Chile, and although his center-right coalition includes Pinochet supporters, he has promised programs for the poor and expressed enthusiasm for the policies of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

But the magnitude 8.8 earthquake has clearly jolted the Chilean political world and exposed fissures between the government and the population, analysts said. The two rival coalitions are being pressed by newspaper editorials to make the transition of power as smooth as possible. Bachelet has said she will not host a farewell dinner for her government Wednesday night at La Moneda, Chile's presidential palace, but perhaps a cocktail reception instead. In light of the relief efforts, Pinera is expected to oversee an austere transition before Congress in Valparaiso.

Like it or not, the disaster will define the start of Pinera's term, said Juan Francisco Coloane, a political analyst.

"If he wants to demonstrate that the right does it better than the left, he'll have to function with a prudent distance from the parties" and retain the nonpartisanship he displayed in the election campaign, Coloane said.

"He wasn't part of the dictatorship -- in fact he was critical of it -- and his distance from the traditional right allows him to negotiate and work with different political parties," said analyst Aldo Cassanelli of the University of Chile in Santiago. "He widened the electoral base of the right by tapping into that new Chilean mentality that's more aspirational, isn't afraid of growth, aspires to economic betterment."

For many, though, the presence of the military on the streets in response to post-quake looting and chaos in Concepcion and elsewhere also raises the specter of the Pinochet years. Yet the situation represents both a challenge and an opportunity for Pinera, Coloane said. Clamping down on looters fits Pinera's law-and-order theme, but "the challenge is how the centrist Pinera will control and manage the right-wing element of Pinochetism" in his coalition, Coloane said.

It's a topic that is apparently too distant now for some of the young people born at the end of the Pinochet regime. A group of university economics students picnicking Thursday in a Santiago park said the bigger issues at play in Pinera's success were corruption, jobs and the "boredom" that voters developed after two decades with center-left governments.

With a conservative government, Marcelo Montes, 23, said, "there will be more money, more capital, more construction. In that sense, it could be good for Chile."

Hernandez is a Times staff writer.

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