Sebastián Piñera; President of Chile, Again?
I was leaving a presentation at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC, by Sebastián Piñera, one of eight declared candidates for President of Chile. A young Chilean walking out next to me offered the following: “You know, this guy is very similar to your President Trump”.
I know enough about Piñera to understand this fellow’s comment, and see the similarity. Piñera is one of Chile’s most wealthy citizens, a billionaire businessman in a country where most if not all citizens believe that to be rich you must be corrupt or a thief, or both. Trump attracts the same contempt. Piñera, like Trump, has made some pretty outlandish statements, so many that there is a very humorous collection of his most outrageous and embarrassing exabruptos, entitled “Piñericosas”. Sexist comments have slipped into his public and private statements, for which he has made un-Trump like apologies. He has had to defend himself from criticisms of his off color discussions with friends and colleagues; his main defense in one case is simply diversionary, that the discussions were illegally taped, raising a more sensitive issue in a Chilean society still ticklish about prior violations of privacy and heavy handed snooping into personal private affairs.
So, while our US Trump is still trying, unconvincingly so far, to prove that he can govern, Piñera already proved he can. Sebastián Piñera was elected President of Chile for the period 2010 to 2014. He took over right after the monumental earthquake and tsunami of February 27, 2010, that put its negative stamp on the outgoing President Michelle Bachelet. At the same time, the event provided Piñera the opportunity to use his management skills, influential business friends, and connections with private sector institutions to lead a countrywide recovery lauded by most observers as generally well organized and timely implemented given the difficult circumstances. His handling of the rescue of 33 miners trapped for weeks in a collapsed mine in the north of Chile has kept him in good stead with his public. Both of these events, however, are now a long way in the past.
Just like President Bachelet before him, Piñera was unable to deliver the presidency to another member of his team, party, or even political inclination. So Bachelet was reelected to the Presidency when Piñera left in 2014. She rode into power with a huge backing and soaring popularity that had risen significantly while she was absent from Chile at the United Nations in New York heading up the UN Women organization. Under full steam with hopes that her “Nueva Mayoría“, New Majority, would govern for the next 8 to 12 or more years, Bachelet took over with utmost optimism. Her program was targeted on broadly accepted needs for education, tax, labor, and political reforms, but her ability to forge an effective team to devise, negotiate, and legislate the laws and programs to carry out these reforms was very ineffective. A fatal combination of a global drop in copper prices, a letdown in aggressive investment promotion, and anti business rhetoric brought Chile’s economic growth to one of the lowest point since the return to democracy in 1990. In spite of some notable accomplishments and her commitment to liberal social issues like same sex marriage and decriminalization of some cases of abortion, her popularity is very low as she approaches the end of her term. She must be anxiously looking forward to her next political life as an adviser on mediation in the friendly flag-draped halls of the United Nations.
Bachelet has once again opened the door for Piñera to succeed her. Her coalition is falling apart, opening up the field to a broader range of candidates than any time since the return to democracy now more than a quarter century ago. The old guard on the left (for example Ricardo Lagos, Isabel Allende, José Miguel Insulza) is being left behind by younger, more vibrant albeit untested candidates. Two media personalities, Beatriz Sánchez, further left than Bachelet, and Alejandro Guillier, pretty much promising a continuation of Bachelet’s agenda, are going to share the vote delivered to Bachelet by the Nueva Mayoria in her previous election. Two other candidates, Alejandro Navarro and Eduardo Artés will further split the left with no real chance of getting enough votes to go on to the second round.
The Christian Democrats finally are demonstrating their desire to begin to separate themselves from the governing coalition that includes the Communist party so are fielding their own Senator Carolina Goic, a candidate who will straddle the center, representing the schizophrenia of her party. Oh yes, there is Marco Enríquez-Ominami, the perennial leftish presidential candidate who seems never to tire of running, nor to excite more than his, and his wife’s, closest followers.
On the right of the spectrum, Piñera has to share the stage and some conservative votes, with José Antonio Kast, a young and upcoming politician with significant support.
Piñera’s recent visit to Washington coincided with the kickoff of the official national campaign period in Chile. The most recent nationwide census puts Chile’s population at about 17.4 million inhabitants, 14.3 of them eligible voters. Due to a newly approved set of election regulations, the period for public campaigning for President (and some legislative branch positions) has been shortened to about two months, and the funding limitations for these campaigns lowered. You can argue that this is too little time to adequately educate people, especially first time voters, on the platforms of the different candidates, especially in light of the dismal voter turnout for recent elections (Chile has voluntary voting, while registration to vote is automatic). But this quite limited length of time for a media heavy campaign seems healthy, especially when compared to our habit in the US to engage in multi year campaigns; to wit, recent speeches by President Trump suggest he never really morphed from campaigning to governing, and is already appealing to his base for the next election four long years from now.
Piñera’s presentation at the Wilson Center on September 22 was entitled “New Winds in Latin America”. He emphasized the continual opening up of economies in Latin America along the lines of Chile’s free trade model. Chile has free trade agreements with practically every important trading country in the world. He noted that the success of the Pacific Alliance between Peru, Colombia, Mexico, and Chile is leading the new, more open leadership in Argentina and Brazil to consider joining the trade pact. In this context, Piñera lamented the announced withdrawal of the US from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), noting that while much of the void left behind will be filled by China, Chile and other Latin american countries would prefer to have the US remain at the TPP table. There is little doubt, however, that the longer it takes the US to come back around to the table, the more China will expand trade with Latin America including Chile.
Piñera claims he has no fight with the concept of global climate change, and consistent with his view on US membership in TPP, he would prefer to have the US back in the Paris Climate Change Agreement.
The writer of this blog has a particular interest in the situation in Chile’s Araucanía region, the face of poverty in Chile. So I asked Piñera to explain the situation in that region and what he plans to do about it should he become President. “The region is a victim of lack of investment in infrastructure and socioeconomic institutions, insufficient recognition of the multicultural nature of the people and the region’s history, and violence in the form of outside induced terrorism.” The first two points, albeit not new or original, seem right on target, the third an interesting and probably disputable proposition. However, as I write this, I read in the local paper that eleven Mapuche inhabitants of the region are under arrest for serious levels of involvement in acts of violence in the region, and that authorities are convinced the armaments used in several violent acts were brought in to Chile from Argentina. Piñera reportedly did very little to address this situation in his first term. He claims his programs in education and to create jobs did reduce the level of poverty; there is some evidence this in fact happened generally during his government, but not necessarily specifically in the Araucanía region. Whoever wins this election, direct involvement in the Araucanía region and the multicultural nature of the population will have to be much greater and smarter than in the past.
One of the Wilson Center event’s organizers noted to Piñera that there seems to be a “second term demon” that affects Presidents in their second terms (eg, Bachelet, Obama). And since he had a relatively successful first term, does he run the risk of the “demon” rendering his second term, should he win the election, not as successful as the first. “Not going to happen!” he retorted with his customary self confidence. “I’m wiser now than before, and we know how to run a government; we were novices the first time around.” Again, the Piñera-Trump similarities.
Piñera, if he wins the election, could be riding a rising price of copper to the benefit of his program focus he has announced to “create new sources of prosperity.” He proposes priority attention to: investment in human capital, policies to increase social inclusion, more rigorous support for innovation and entrepreneurship, more public/private resources for science and technology, smarter response to the forces of globalization and aggressive integration in the world, and improvement in the quality and efficiency of State and public institutions. Lacking details, this program is unobjectionable.
During his visit to Washington, Sebastián Piñera did not have a meeting with Donald Trump. After all, he is not a sitting head of state, and maybe he did not ask for one (that’s hard to believe, but maybe, just maybe, he is slightly less pretentious than before). But he did have a meeting with past President Barack Obama. There were no pictures of the Chilean sitting in Obama’s chair, but after all, his chair these days isn’t anything so special as was the one in the oval office of the White House. So while President Bachelet was completing her UN duties in New York, her nemesis Piñera was making the rounds in Washington.
Maybe the first time around Piñera was Trump-like: arrogant, unpolished, undisciplined, and unpredictable. But he had, and still projects, a sense of humor. Trump is humorless. In his presentation at the Wilson Center Piñera smiled more than Trump has in his first six months in the Presidency. And while you might think that the slogan of his campaign might be “Let’s make Chile great again!”, it’s not, but it’s close. “Arriba los corazones; ya vienen tiempos mejores”, taken not from Trump but possibly from Winston Churchill’s June 1941 speech to the Allies, “Lift up your hearts, all will come right”.
A lot can happen between now and November 19, the day Chileans will vote for their next president. Campaign strategies seem to be focused on gotcha tactics to embarrass, shame or demean the opponent. If they and the media could focus on the substantive programs of each candidate, the voting public would surely find significant differences in the candidates. To this reader, the idea that “they are all the same” is not valid. So, let’s hope for a well fought campaign, on the issues. If one of the candidates receives a majority of the valid votes cast, he or she will become president. If no one receives this required tally, there will be a second round vote between the two top vote-getters. Right now, a second round of voting seems most likely, with five candidates clearly vying for the votes from the left, two for the votes in the right, and one essentially trying to attract votes across the center.
Good luck, Chile and Chileans. Have a good, clean, satisfactory election. Maybe the rest of us can learn something from the way you do it. Daveschile.com will be watching.
Posted on September 26, 2017, in Leesburg, Virginia.