The Bad Luck of Chile’s Gaffe-Prone Billionaire President

Chilean president Sebastián Piñera speaks during a press conference at La Moneda Presidential Palace in Santiago on Sept. 4, 2019.

Source JAVIER TORRES/AFP/Getty

Why you should care

Because Chile’s legacy as an economic success story is at stake.

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Sebastián Piñera probably regrets asking Chilean citizens for their four cents.

Last week, the South American nation was beset with mass fare dodging, as students and activists protested a metro fare hike from the equivalent of $1.12 to $1.16. That civil disobedience transformed into violence and vandalism, with metro stations and storefronts set on fire by protestors, who continued raging Monday.

Their complaint? That inequality in Santiago, and Chile as a whole, has gotten out of hand. The target of their ire? Piñera, the nation’s conservative billionaire president, who, ironically, once founded an organization — the “Enterprising Women Foundation” — dedicated to assisting young women in dire economic straits.

we are at war.

SebastiÁn Piñera

Of course, lauding Piñera, 69, as a champion of working-class women should be taken with a grain of salt, considering he once joked that “when a lady says ‘no’ it means ‘maybe,’ when she says ‘maybe’ it means ‘yes,’ and when she says ‘yes,’ she is not a lady,” during a state visit to Mexico.

In fact, Piñera has a history of putting his foot in his mouth, so much so that his slips of the tongue are known locally as “piñericosas.” This also isn’t the first time students have protested him in the streets: During his first stint as president, the “Chilean Winter” protests of 2011 arose to question his administration’s education platform (his approval ratings fell as low as 22 percent at one point, making him the least popular leader since the military dictator Augusto Pinochet).

Which makes it worth wondering whether Piñera is equipped to navigate the tricky diplomacy necessary to keep Latin America’s “model economy” stable amid protests unlikely to die down. That narrative is especially important considering Chile is slated to host the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in less than a month.

But rather than douse the flames, Piñera decided to add fuel to the fire this weekend: “We are at war,” he said, declaring a state of emergency around the protests that have claimed at least eight lives without explicitly saying whom Chile was now at war with.

“Today is not the time for ambiguities. I call on all my compatriots to unite in this battle against violence and delinquency,” he said in a televised address from the national army headquarters in Santiago.

The sight brought back troubling memories of the Pinochet military dictatorship that terrorized Chile from 1973 to 1990, leading Army General Javier Iturriaga to quickly tell reporters Sunday that the capital was “peaceful and calm” and that “I’m not at war with anyone.”

Chile has long been held up by the World Bank and other global institutions as a model for economic stability in Latin America. But despite the fact it has been one of Latin America’s fastest-growing economies for decades, many have not felt the benefits. The incomes of the richest of Chile are more than 25 times that of its poorest, according to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, making it one of the more unequal economies in the world.

“This has been building up since at least 2006,” says Jody Pavilack, a University of Montana professor specializing in Latin American and Chilean history, drawing the connection to the Chilean Winter protests. “This didn’t come out of nowhere, but it does seem in many ways a vindication of the last project for redistributive justice that got quashed by Pinochet.”

On the streets, protestors have called out Piñera specifically by name while banging drums and blowing whistles. “Piñera, listen! Go to hell!” the crowds chanted, according to Reuters.

Perhaps that would be surprising rhetoric to see aimed at any other politician who had twice been elected president, even finishing his last term with a 50 percent approval rate. But Piñera has often courted controversy. In 1992, the center-right National Renewal member tried to run for his party’s nomination, only to see his chances disappear due to what became known as Piñeragate when a wiretapped conversation between him and a journalist plotting to verbally ambush a rival was revealed.

In his 2009 campaign, a video in which he appeared with a gay male couple — unheard of for conservative Chile — broke barriers. And promising to sell his shares in major companies after getting elected (he is worth nearly $3 billion today), Piñera placed much of his cash in blind trusts … but initially refused to sell his complete stake in Chilevision, instead planning to transfer ownership to a nonprofit foundation he owned, whose leadership he could remove at any moment (the plan didn’t materialize, and he eventually sold to Time Warner instead).

Many of these are self-inflicted gaffes, playing into the narrative of an out-of-touch elite struggling to relate to his people. But Piñera’s career has also been marked by difficulties out of his control — from devastating earthquakes to mining disasters, deadly prison fires and forest fires.

That stigma has followed him so closely that “mufa,” a Spanish phrase for “bad luck,” has often been associated with his name. And now a modest metro fee hike — which he has since revoked, doing little to quell the fury — launches nationwide protests just as he preps to host a major economic forum?

Piñera, whose term expires in 2022, cannot run for reelection immediately under Chile’s constitution. But with tension growing in the streets by the day, the time for piñericosas might be running short.

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