Chile's leader ends first year with mixed results

The Associated Press
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 6:45 PM

SANTIAGO, Chile -- In the year since Sebastian Pinera assumed Chile's presidency, he has basked in global praise for bringing Chile back from a disastrous earthquake and leading the remarkable rescue of 33 miners stuck deep underground. Chile's economy is booming and jobs are returning.

Yet, all is not well for the billionaire businessman who next week welcomes Barack Obama on only the third bilateral visit of a U.S. president to this South American country in 50 years.

For better and for worse, with his impulsive character, taste for calculated risks and a leadership style befitting a tychoon accustomed to fast results, Pinera is transforming Chilean politics after two decades of center-left governments.

Pinera's approval rating hit a high of 63 percent in October as the world rejoiced over the rescue of the miners who spent 69 days trapped a half-mile deep. But in February, a monthly survey by the firm Adimark said his support had slid to 42 percent, and 49 percent said they now disapprove of their leader.

His popularity was hurt in part by a jump in gasoline prices that paralyzed far southern Chile for a week, and his frosty relationship with Marcelo Bielsa, the popular Argentine coach of Chile's national team, who quit rather than work for a Pinera ally.

Many also were dismayed by Pinera's failure to keep his promise to avoid conflicts of interest by promptly divesting his shares in Chile's main airline, a private television channel and the country's most popular football club, Colo Colo.

Then there was the episode last month when Pinera, who loves flying helicopters, ran low on fuel and had to make an emergency landing on a remote highway. A home video recorded Pinera saying he'd been piloting the aircraft and the tank was nearly empty, prompting criticism for the risk he took. Then, his copilot Andres Navarro stepped forward to say he'd actually been at the controls, a claim widely doubted despite backing from civil aviation authorities.

"It raised doubts about the credibility of the president," said opposition deputy Gabriel Ascencio.

Some also begrudge giving Pinera credit for Chile's economic success. The country's GDP has grown 6 percent so far during his tenure, double the 2.8 percent average during the previous administration of Michelle Bachelet.

Reconstruction needs after last year's magnitude-8.8 earthquake have helped create more than 400,000 jobs, but Bernardo Navarrete, political analyst of the University of Santiago, said Bachelet left Pinera "with fresh resources that few governments have had."

Marta Lagos, economist and director of the consulting firm Latinobarometro, credits record-high prices for copper, Chile's main export.

"Chile has been very healthy economically," she said. "It would be another thing if it were due to him."

Now inflation is a growing threat, mainly due to rising oil prices. Chile imports 97 percent of the fuel it consumes.

Pinera's latest move ivolving energy costs showed his impulsive side - only hours after his finance minister said it couldn't happen, the president returned from Europe and signed an accord Thursday to soften rising fuel prices.

Given the country's dictatorial past, many Chileans remain wary of leaders with larger-than-life personalities who seem to have an appetite for power.

"The big defect that this government has is the excessive centralism and cult of personality of the president, which concentrates everything," said Senate President Jorge Pizarro of the opposition Christian Democrat party.

Chile gives its presidents the right to make thousands of political appointments, including the leaders each regional government as well as the state-owned copper and energy companies. And Pinera has brought his entrepreneural experience to the job - one that has grown his personal fortune by 9 percent last year to $2.4 billion, according to Forbes magazine - as well as his outsized personality. The combination has made him a uniquely powerful leader for Chile's democracy.

The leader of Pinera's National Renovation party, Carlos Larrain, praised his first year in office, but said Pinera needs to cede some of his power to the parties that make up his center-right coalition in order to stay successful.

"He can't keep being a one-man band, because a one-man band means he can't direct a group, and a good government should be more like a symphony," Larrain told Orbe, a local Chilean news service.

© 2011 The Associated Press