The person who died this Tuesday afternoon in an aircraft accident when the helicopter he was piloting crashed into Lake Ranco, where he always vacationed in the south of Chile, was president of Chile twice in the 21st century. He was a democratic leader, as Interior Minister Carolina Tohá recalled when confirming the news, which made clear how Piñera dedicated his life to public service. He was a tireless, risk-taking politician, he loved to bet and win. In some of his first election campaigns he used the locomotive slogan, and this image largely represented him both in his life as a politician – he was a parliamentarian, president of his National Renewal party and then president – and in business.
Sebastián Piñera Echenique, 74 years old, was a man who focused on big things, not on subtleties. When he found a shirt he liked in the store, he bought a dozen of the same design. Ties were usually given away. Until arriving at La Moneda in 2010, the suits were not custom-made, so they were almost always baggy and long. His peculiar style – casual, careless, stingy or severe – revealed a character whose mind was focused much less on everyday matters – such as clothing – and more on his two great passions: politics and economics. But he had one passion: flying. In Ranco, where he had a house in a beautiful area called Bahía Coique, people knew when Piñera flew over the cool waters of the lake because they knew his helicopter. At that time I did it almost daily with family and friends.
Piñera flies his helicopter over Santiago in 2006. VICTOR ROJAS (AP)
Piñera is 74 years old and has been married to Cecilia Morel since 1973 – with whom he had four children and many grandchildren – and for years he combined public affairs with his companies. At the end of the 1970s he became the representative for Chile for credit cards and since then his business has become increasingly ambitious and successful. He was a major shareholder in the airline Lan Chile (now Latam), the television station Chilevisión and Blanco y Negro, the company that manages one of the country's most popular football clubs, Colo Colo. But this intersection between money and politics was not free for Piñera: both his ability to make money and to use loopholes to his advantage were his biggest Achilles heel in his political life.
Piñera was a rich man: his fortune is estimated by Forbes at about $2.9 billion, the fifth largest in the country according to the 2023 rankings. But he was a first generation millionaire. He was born in Santiago de Chile in 1949, the third of six children of Magdalena Echenique and José Piñera Carvallo, an engineer and diplomat who raised his children thanks to his work and was the founder of the Chilean Christian Democracy, the party that for decades represented the middle class . The reasons why the former president did not join his father's party and ultimately joined the right were never entirely clear. The truth is that Piñera tried in vain to captivate the moderate center, where he sometimes seemed more comfortable than in his own sector.
He has never been a traditional Chilean right-winger, and has historically been more conservative, which is why there are some within his own ranks who view him with a certain degree of suspicion. He is an average Catholic. He felt comfortable when he visited former President Barack Obama in Washington – as he did in September 2017 – or when he bragged about his closeness to France's Nicolas Sarkozy or Britain's David Cameron.
Rise of the opposition
In the 1988 referendum that sealed the departure of dictator Augusto Pinochet, he voted “no” to the continuity of military government, unlike the rest of the right. In the democracy he was a senator between 1990 and 1998. In the middle of the transition, when the center-left Concertación party was in power, he began to become one of the main figures in the opposition. In 2005, he tried unsuccessfully to reach La Moneda as he lost to Michelle Bachelet. However, in 2009, his second attempt, he won a historic victory: he defeated former President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle and became the first right-wing president since the return to democracy in 1990. His predecessor, Jorge Alessandri, had been elected for decades ago, in 1958. So Piñera was finally the one who broke the hegemony of the left in Chile.
Sebastián Piñera celebrates his victory in the 2009 presidential election. Roberto Candia (AP)
He led a government that in some ways followed the path of the four center-left governments that had previously ruled the country. He did not make a rightward turn, as his own sector would have liked, and his administration was characterized primarily by an emphasis on management. After the south-central part of the country was virtually destroyed by the devastating earthquake of February 2010, Piñera had to concentrate on rebuilding.
The rescue of the 33 miners who lived 700 meters underground for 69 days tried to be a symbol of a government that was trying – with a certain arrogance – to show that business logic can do things well. However, the 2011 student revolution tested Piñera and his people politically. He had a reputation for being smart and for having a certain penchant for protocol excursions, such as when he sat at Obama's desk in the White House to take a photo. Or when, in the middle of the 2019 outbreak, he took a photo alone at the epicenter of the protests, taking advantage of the curfew. As a master and doctor of economics from Harvard, his strengths were not necessarily soft taxes such as sympathy or proximity to citizens.
Piñera hugs miner Florencio Antonio Ávalos after he was rescued at the San José mine in October 2010. Roberto Candia (AP)
He was impulsive, uncontrollable – even to his advisors and his confidants – but prepared and experienced because his opponents recognized him.
In 2017, he ran for government again and won against a weakened center-left party without a strong leadership. For the second time, the socialist Michelle Bachelet, who expressed her condolences on Tuesday afternoon, presented him with the presidential sash. Together they ruled for 16 years.
But this second government was extremely complex. In October 2019, he had to face the social outbreak. There were demands and unrest was mounting, but it was Piñera who was in La Moneda, and both he and his government were the targets of anger. As street violence threatened Chile's young democracy, the left-wing opposition tried to remove him from power through a constitutional challenge in Congress, accusing him of human rights violations. However, it was not Pinochet who was at the helm, but, as Tohá recalled this Tuesday, a democratic president. He never gave up his commitment to democracy, and even his tough opponents recognize that today.
Only the pandemic calmed the streets and he is recognized for managing the health emergency, because his business talent made it possible to negotiate vaccines with laboratories before anyone else in Latin America. During its worst months, Chile was the envy of the region due to mass vaccination of the population.
But as expected, in March 2022 he handed over command to a president of a different stripe, Gabriel Boric, from the new left of the Frente Amplio, with whom he always had a strained relationship. With the exception of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the coup last September, when Piñera did not even hesitate to join the activities organized by La Moneda. He was not malicious and knew how to take advantage of opportunities.
Gabriel Boric with Piñera, September 1, 2023. Presidency of Chile (EFE)
Less than two years after leaving La Moneda, he did not completely give up the idea of returning to government. His public appreciation increased week by week and Piñera was aware that the right has great chances of returning in 2026. This Tuesday, speaking about his predecessor, Boric said that he would say goodbye with a state funeral, two days of national mourning and recognition of him as someone who “with his vision contributed to reaching great agreements for the good of the country, and who was a democrat from the beginning”.
Subscribe here Subscribe to the EL PAÍS Chile newsletter and receive all the important information about current events in the country.