Friday, March 12, 2010

The Presidential Handoff in Chile: Goodbye Bachelet, Hello Piñera, Let the Earth Shake

 Piñera, his camera smirk/smile, and myself at Vendemia Santa Cruz

For the first time in over 50 years a member of Chile’s right wing alianza took the oath of office yesterday after being elected and the earth shook below. A billionaire airline tycoon, Sebastián Piñera, is now the president of Chile. But the entire changing of the guard has been overshadowed by the seismic activity. The big presidential hand off was no exception.

At about 11.30 am yesterday morning a 6.9 (also reported in the Chilean press as a 7.2 “aftershock” struck with a an epicenter near the coastline south of Valparaiso. It hit right as Piñera was taking his oath of office, and not too far away.

A tsunami warning was issued immediately afterwards the earthquake and people scrambled to higher ground. Taller buildings in Santiago were evacuated.

What a day to take office. But then again having to deal with a 8.8 earthquake in the last few days of office isn’t exactly an attractive proposition either.

Piñera’s assumption of president is rather significant. Chile’s right wing parties and the alliance the have formed, the Renovacion Nacional and the Union Democratica Independiente, haven’t had power since Pinochet was in control. But Piñera beat Eduardo Frei, with a pretty solid margin.

Piñera managed to win the election despite a high approval rating of Bachelet. The Concertación, the three center left group is made of three parities. The PPD, PS and the DC, wasn’t able to cash in on this popularity and the relatively smooth handling of a global financial crisis.

Piñera is a very wealthy man. He controls minority and majority stakes in some of Chile’s largest companies, among them the airlines LAN Chile, Chile’s most popular (and infamous) football team Colo Colo. He controls TVN, one of the largest Chilean broadcasters. His total wealth is somewhere up there around USD 1 billion.

His success as a business man has garnered him a lot of respect from many Chileans, not surprising considering the country’s now stable love of free market policies, even if they were instilled into the national character at gunpoint.

But Piñera’s name has also arisen in several investigations. He was fined in 2007 for using insider information to his benefit to sell stocks. Probably more dubious was his connection to the default of the Banco de Talca in 1982, while Piñera was general manager. He was cleared of wrong doing by the government, at that time the dictatorship that he supported.

Piñera’s 2010 campaign took on a mix of Obama’s “change” with some old fashioned Pat Buchanan or Ronny Reagan tough on crime talking points. In the end it was his positioning as the candidate of change that allowed him to win. The incumbent Concertación was not able to produce a new candidate, rather relied on an ex president, Eduardo Frei, who now is at best an elderly statesman. Despite the popularity that Bachelet enjoyed, it wasn’t enough to convince people that the status quo was the line to walk.

Personally I have some sort of distrust of Piñera. I don’t trust him to make good decisions as a statesman. Too much time as a shrewd businessman can skew one’s sense of public good. I’m not saying that just because one is a successful businessman they are somehow corrupt or evil. Hardly. But when one already has all the money and plenty of influence, what exactly is it about being president that they feel they lack? The influence? Is he into the idea of himself as some sort of guru? Some sort of neo-liberal Chavez? I can’t trust the guy. But in the end I think this is what happens when a political party has been in power too long, even if democratically elected. It entrenches the bureaucracy, the stale institutionalism that is all too prevalent in Chile. It does need a serious shaking up.

I actually met Sebastían Piñera once last year. I had been drinking wine at the Santa Cruz Vendemia (wine grape harvest) Festival and he ran up to shake hands. I snapped a foto of him. He looks much different in person, much shorter and smaller than on TV. His head is a bit too big and his arms really long. I think if we wrestled I could pin him no problem. But that’s besides the point right?

So here we are. The era of Piñera. Lets see how he handles this mess and devastation these earthquakes have left.

1 comment:

Kyle said...

"Eduardo Frei, who now is at best an elderly statesman."

I agree. I feel like they picked the worst possible candidate to represent change, which is what Chileans wanted, and it was obvious that's what they wanted.

We'll see. I'm going into this Pinera thing with an open mind.

And what was reported yesterday were two big aftershocks, earthquakes, whatever you want to call them -- one was 7.2 and the one that followed about 10 minutes later was supposedly 6.9 from what I understand