Monocle: Interview with President Sebastian Piñera

monocle_0001Sebastián Piñera, President of Chile

As Sebastián Piñera approaches the end of his term as Chile’s president, he reflects on his proudest achievements, his belief that patience and compromise are crucial in politics, and looks forward to a life of adventure.

In the last months of a term marked by social conflict and low approval ratings, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera is seeking to solidify his legacy.

Days after returning to South America from an Apec summit in Indonesia, Piñera is on his presidential 737, landing in the Atacama Desert to open a museum commemorating the rescue of 33 miners in 2010. It’s a clever pairing. The public has always rated Piñera highest for his foreign policy, while the miner rescue was his moment of glory, surging to a broad majority approval nationwide.

Those opinion poll ratings proved shortlived. Widespread protests over education have affected his popularity, as have a range of relatively superficial matters, such as Piñera’s involvement in the firing of a popular football coach and his supposed stinginess with the little one-time payments – or bonuses – often used to cement support in the public sector.

The 63-year-old former professor and entrepreneur argues that economic growth exceeding 5 per cent a year, historically low unemployment and ever-fatter cash reserves from a long boom in copper prices should have grabbed more attention. Certainly more than the government’s stumbles in rebuilding after an earthquake, ongoing fights over environmental protection and public education and a persistent divide between rich and poor.

Piñera, who constitutionally can’t run for immediate re-election, is already looking to the future. After the museum opening, his motorcade of green police pickup trucks, rented tourist vans and Toyota suvs drives on through the desert to the next event. After stopping for a cigarette and taking in the Mars-like surroundings, Piñera sits down with monocle in the back of his suv to look back on his time in office.

Monocle:What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as president?
Sebastián Piñera: You learn to be more humble, more patient. You realise that you cannot get everything done immediately. That you have to negotiate and compromise. Even if you’re right, you have to spend a lot of time convincing people, arguing and trying to create majority support for your measures. And that’s something you don’t do in the private sector.

M:What would you do differently if you could do this term again?
SP: As part of the economic growth and economic success, you have to face new demands on the part of the people. When they move from poverty to middle class, they don’t stop there. They immediately start asking for better education, better health, better cities, and maybe we didn’t realise that.

People thought Chile had already become a developed country. We are on our way to becoming a developed country. I would say that expectations and demands of the people have been extremely high. We should have controlled that better.

monocle_0003M:What’s your single proudest achievement as president?
SP: It’s hard to pick only one but I would say in the middle of the world living in a huge crisis, we have been able to recover our leadership and our dynamism. Today Chile is among the fastest-growing countries in the world. We have been able to achieve full employment, at the same time increasing wages and salaries and reducing poverty and taking very deep structural reform in the educational and health areas.

On top of that we have been able to reconstruct our country which was devastated by a huge earthquake and tsunami 11 days before we took office. So those, I would say, are our main accomplishments.

M:What level of sacrifice do you think the wealthy can make in Chile?
SP: More than what we have today. I am convinced that the real cause of poverty and extreme inequality is basically two [things]: lack of quality of education for everybody and lack of opportunities for good employment for everybody. That is why we have put our main efforts in those two areas.

The poor have to do their part too and not only rely on government policies. On top of that, of course, the people who have had better opportunities in life have to be more generous in terms of sharing those opportunities with other people who don’t have the same opportunities.

M:What are the biggest challenges for whomever takes office in March?
SP: We still have to travel a long way to become a real developed country. We need to keep growing at 6 per cent a year if we want to achieve that goal before the end of this decade. We have to keep creating jobs. To keep the leadership and the dynamism of the Chilean economy is not easy. It’s easy to lose that capacity and we have lost it in the past many times. Another challenge is how to make development compatible with protection of the environment.

M:What’s the biggest national risk in Chile today?
SP: We might lose our will. I worry that people might start thinking they have a right to everything and start asking the government for everything. Freedom comes with responsibilities. If you teach everyone that they deserve everything for free, we won’t make it.

M:Now that you’re about to leave office, what’s the next step?
SP: I don’t know yet. I know I will work very intensively until March 2014. What will happen then we don’t know. And I’m happy not knowing, because that kind of uncertainty is also a source of freedom. I like adventure: I am a parachutist, I parasail, I’m a helicopter pilot and a diver. So I would like go back to the world of nature and adventure.

Photos by Cristobal Marambio

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About Steven Bodzin

Steven Bodzin is a reporter. He blogged when he was a freelancer.

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