Chile’s new president, Sebastián Piñera, a self-made billionaire serving for the second time, was elected to lift up his nation’s economy, which stagnated under President Michelle Bachelet. He also inherits a large deficit and an investment community strangled by regulations . Just into his second week in office, Piñera sat down in Chile’s White House, La Moneda Palace, with The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth to talk about his hard road — and which Trump administration policies concern him most. Edited excerpts follow:
Q: You spoke with President Trump on the telephone after your election. He invited you to Washington.
Q: Did you accept?
A: We have no set date yet. We have had a very good relationship with the U.S. I told Trump he shouldn’t be worried about our free trade agreement because the U.S. has a surplus with Chile, and we don’t care about that.
There are some areas that really concern me. For instance, there is no clear policy from the Trump administration with respect to Latin America. This is something every Latin American country worries about. When Trump went to [the World Economic Forum in] Davos, it was very strange for us that he was defending protectionism, and [Chinese] President Xi Jinping was defending free trade. I think that protectionism and commercial warfare are bad for everybody. We are also worried that the U.S. withdrew from the Paris agreement on climate change.
Q: What about the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership? Chile had a lot to do with saving it after the U.S. under Trump withdrew.
A: We spent many years negotiating that agreement. At the last minute, the U.S. dropped out. We signed this month — all 11 countries except the U.S. I think China is interested in joining the group. If they join the TPP, they will be the largest economy in that group, which means the U.S. might lose its influence in free trade, and that is something that worries us.
Q: How do you see Venezuela’s collapse? What are you willing to do?
A: In Venezuela, there is no democracy, no respect for human rights, no rule of law, and they are facing a huge and dramatic security and humanitarian crisis. Venezuela was the richest country in Latin America in the 1990s, and now they are starving and dying because they don’t have food or medicine. That is because of a very bad government, which is not respecting democracy or the rule of law and is violating human rights. Every democratic country in Latin America and the world cannot stay indifferent. We are planning to do whatever is possible to help the Venezuelan people.
Q: There were negotiations between the Venezuelan government and the opposition brokered by Chile and Mexico, but they broke down.
A: The talks failed because President [Nicolás] Maduro didn’t want to have free, open and fair elections.
Q: The Venezuelan generals have a lot of drug money, right?
A: Do you know how many generals there are in Venezuela? About 4,000. I suspect they are fueled by a lot of money coming from corruption and drug trafficking.
Q: Argentine President Mauricio Macri has called for a halt to buying Venezuelan oil. Do you agree?
A: The problem is, we don’t want to hurt the Venezuelan people. Their only source of foreign exchange is the export of oil.
Q: What will you do about Chile’s immigration problem?
A: Many Venezuelans are coming to Chile. Also we have a lot of immigrants from Haiti and the Dominican Republic. We are a very open country, but we want immigration to be legal. We don’t want to open our frontiers to people who are coming to do harm, like drug traffickers and smugglers.
Q: This is your second week in office. Are you enjoying it?
A: We have been working almost 24 hours a day because there are so many things we need to change. Let me tell you about the most important priorities of the Chilean people: [First,] citizen security. The rate of crime is going up, and people are fed up. The former government didn’t perform well in this area. Second is growth, investment, employment and productivity. The rate of growth in Chile last year was 1.5 percent. The average for the last four years is 1.7 percent.
Q: What was the rate of growth when you were last president [from 2010 to 2014]?
A: It was 5.3 percent on average. [But recently] productivity became negative, and it was dragging our growth instead of pushing it. The fiscal deficit and public debt went up.
Q: Because Bachelet spent a lot?
A: Too much. We suffered a reduction in our credit rating because of that. . . . Public expenditure has increased in Chile too rapidly. We will establish an austerity policy. The last government tried to strengthen our economy by increasing public expenditure. That is not the way. We will improve our growth rate by promoting investment. . . . Since we were elected, expectations about the future are rising rapidly.
Q: But what can you accomplish without a majority in either house of Congress?
A: We are close to a majority. We want to build things [with] dialogue, agreements and cooperation. We have faith that some people in the opposition will collaborate with us. We will fight not to be caught in the kind of bipartisan war you have in the U.S. We need to convince at least seven members of the House and at least three members of the Senate in order to get our laws approved.
Q: You are trying to promote foreign and domestic investment, but your regulatory framework — especially the environmental requirements imposed by your predecessor — makes it very slow for businesses to get permits.
A: For big projects in Chile to go through that [environmental] process now takes six to eight years. We want to protect our environment and nature, but we cannot create a huge bureaucracy that doesn’t protect our nature and is stopping our capacity to invest and grow. We [also] want to promote a tax system which is in favor of investment. The [current] system has stopped investment and has damaged our capacity for growth. We need to improve our labor reform. There is no better labor policy than full employment.
Q: Chile has made amazing progress in the past 20 years.
A: Yes, but my dream is to transform Chile into a developed country without poverty. Real development is more than economic growth. It has to do with the quality of your democracy and your institutions. Latin America has everything to become a developed continent. We have vast territory and very generous natural resources. We don’t have the kind of wars that destroyed Europe in the last century or the kind of social and religious conflicts that are hitting the Middle East. Despite that, Latin America is still underdeveloped, and one-third of its population is living in poverty.
Q: But you are saddled with large financial commitments you inherited from the prior government, such as sending 60 percent of Chile’s children to college for free. How are you going to pay for all you want to do? Will you raise taxes?
A: We will not raise taxes. The best fiscal policy is having solid growth. If we are aiming to hit close to 5 percent growth, it will increase our revenue substantially.
Q: You grew up in a Christian Democratic household, and you are reported to be a moderate person.
A: I hate all kinds of extremists, because they only bring suffering and destruction.
Q: Is one of your tasks to free the center-right from the Pinochet right?
A: I opposed [dictator Augusto] Pinochet’s regime. But that happened 30 years ago. I am not the gatekeeper of the past; I want to be the builder of the future.