Less than two weeks after being walloped by a massive 8.8-magnitude quake that killed some 500 people and famously jolted Earth’s axis, Chile put the finishing touches Thursday on a momentous political shake-up as well.
Billionaire businessman Sebastian Piñera became Chile's first elected conservative president in more than half a century, putting an official end to rule by the Concertacion, a center-left coalition that has governed since dictator Augusto Pinochet relinquished power in 1990.
But the austere ceremony – already scaled back in remembrance of quake victims – was marred by a series of aftershocks, including a 7.2-magnitude quake that struck at 11.40 a.m. local time.
As regional leaders looked on, Mr. Piñera bowed his head to receive Chile’s red, white, and blue presidential sash, the property for the past four years of Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s first female head of state. The two then stood for the Chilean national anthem – at the same time as residents in coastal communities such as Concepcion and Constitucion scrambled for the hills under a new tsunami warning.
Uribe, Morales look on; Chávez stays away
Among the many visiting regional leaders were Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a natural ally to Piñera, and Bolivian head of state Evo Morales, a far leftist with whom the new Chilean president at least shares a passion for soccer. The two played a match together Wednesday. One notable absence was Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, whom Piñera recently criticized as having a “different conception” of democracy.
Piñera is scheduled to address the nation this evening, when he is expected to outline plans for reconstructing a country still reeling from the Feb. 27 earthquake and resulting tsunami waves. The president’s speech is also likely to focus on national unity, a message he has consistently pushed since winning the presidency in a tight Jan. 17 runoff against the Concertacion’s Eduardo Frei.
Shortly after the ceremonies, Piñera spoke with reporters. “In the middle of this pain, suffering, and uncertainty, and of course without forgetting about those who have lost their lives, I want to call on my fellow countrymen to dry your tears and get down to work,” he said. “To all Chileans, I urge you to raise up your hearts because better times are ahead.”
Until recently, the new president’s overtures – which included naming a veteran Concertacion figure to head the Defense Ministry – found little traction among his opponents. Even in the direct aftermath of the earthquake, political fault lines continued to show through. Critics accused Bachelet of shutting Piñera out of the government’s immediate response. Political conservatives also claimed the outgoing government was slow to react.
More recently, however, the two sides of the political aisle have promised a truce, at least for the immediate future. Bachelet and Piñera shared a hug during a national telethon Saturday, which raised some $60 million and helped spark a surge of flag-waving national pride under the mantra “Chile Fuerza” – “be strong, Chile.”
Earlier in the day, the new president met with Concertacion leaders, with all sides agreeing to support emergency recovery and reconstruction efforts.
Piñera has already promised the unusual step of modifying this year’s budget. He also plans to stimulate construction by cutting back red tape, subsidizing the hiring of construction workers, and modifying tax laws to encourage more private donation.
But while the devastation provoked by the monster quake presents the new president with a huge challenge, analysts agree it is also an opportunity.
“He can now turn his message of national unity into something that’s actually viable,” said Jose Jara, director of the Chilean branch of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO). “Today, whoever says he’s not for national unity will pay a political cost. It’s unfortunate that it’s come about as a result of an earthquake, but really the disaster has left Pinera in a very good position.”
Pinera also has a built in justification to not push forward immediately with his lofty campaign promises, which included widespread job creation, a tough approach to crime, and improvements to education and healthcare, the FLACSO analyst explained.
“The government can modify its agenda,” said Jara. “He’ll have excuses not to follow through on his priorities. He said he’d create a million jobs, that he was concerned about the environment. All that now gets pushed to the background.”