Sebastián Piñera is experiencing his last several hours as president of Chile. His second term has been marked by severe crises. He did not create many of them, but his responses and the results have made him one of the most disapproved presidents in the history of the country.
“Governing has never been easy, and it has been especially difficult for us.” In his last nationally televised speech, President Sebastián Piñera spoke euphemistically about his second term as leader of Chile. And true, just like his first term that was mostly about cleaning up the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, his second term was marked by crises, many of which were out of his hands.
Arguably, though, it is in times of crisis that true leadership emerges. Looking back on four years of “Piñera II” with this lens, one can say the president was anything but a good leader, someone who didn’t listen, made unpredictable decisions, and severely damaged Chile’s institutions and image. Five main themes dominated his term:
1. Mapuche conflict
In his first year as president of Chile, the Mapuche Camilo Catrillanca was shot in the back of the head during a police operation near the town of Ercilla in southern Chile. Catrillanca, father of a six-year-old girl and husband to a pregnant wife, died on the spot. The handling of the killing became exemplary of the way Piñera and his inner circle conducted politics: no one took responsibility, low-ranking officers had to take the blame for their superiors, and evidence was hidden.
Thereafter, violence in the south grew. Refusing an open dialogue, Piñera decided in late 2021 to deploy the army to four provinces in southern Chile, thereby underscoring his incapacity to solve problems in a diplomatic manner. When President-Elect Gabriel Boric takes office, he will inherit a conflict that has only grown worse during Piñera’s presidency.
It was in February 2019 that President Piñera, in a desperate aim to portray himself as regional leader, set off to the Colombian bordertown of Cúcuta, where he put up a show alongside his Colombian counterpart Iván Duque and self-proclaimed Venezuelan president Juan Guaidó, handing out humanitarian aid. It was here Piñera said Venezuelans would always be welcome in Chile, thus inviting them to come to his country.
Ever since, the influx of migrants from Venezuela and other Latin American countries has drastically increased. As a result, the northern parts of Chile are suffering from an ongoing stream of arriving illegal migrants, who cross the desert in search of a better future. Regional authorities say they have been warning La Moneda for years about the evolving humanitarian disaster. No response, no one listens, is what Tarapacá governor José Migual Carvajal told Chile Today. Only in recent months, the government took some steps. However, increasing military presence and digging a trench along the border will probably not solve the problem, and it certainly won’t help the thousands of migrants already here.
October 18, 2019, an indelible stamp on Chilean history, a day the people of Chile had enough. Enough of the abuses, enough of the inequality, enough of the system that treated them without dignity, as machines instead of humans. Thousands of people marched on Santiago center, and in the days that followed these demonstrations spread to all major cities in the country. An uprising, an estallido, convoking hundreds of thousands from different backgrounds and classes. Unable to understand the needs of its people, Piñera reflected on this very day as a moment of violence, ignoring all those who marched peacefully.
Again, unable to solve things as a leader, the president all but declared war on his people, called upon the army to restore order, and seemingly gave his police forces carte blanche to act against those demonstrating for a better future. The result: dozens of deaths, hundreds of documented human rights violations, and ruptured eyes from rubber bullets as the most symbolic one. The people opened their eyes, so they had to be closed. Politicians sidelined the president arranging a political peace pact and announcing a referendum for a new Constitution, which was largely approved by Chilean people. The subsequent Constitutional Convention faced from day one resistance from the sitting government, another sign that, with everything he had, Piñera would defend the system that benefited his family and inner circle.
The coronavirus pandemic was something no leader in the world had predicted. No one knew how to handle a health crisis of this size, so certain mistakes can’t be laid at Piñera’s feet. But the focus of his government on the economy was a massive mistake that cost hundreds of lives. Reopening the country too soon, unclear communications from the Health Ministry, and alternating coronavirus numbers, followed by the disappearance of servers and computers when an investigation was opened, were significant missteps.
The tail-end of the pandemic, however, has been a positive note for Piñera. Early on, he struck deals with Chinese Sinovac and several European and American vaccine makers to assure Chile had a large stock of vaccines. Chile went on to become a world leader with one of the highest vaccination rates. During the pandemic, lower middle-class families and businesses could count on large and extensive economic support packages. Of course it’s the next government that will pay for that economic support: the fiscal deficit in Chile is huge and the government has already drastically decreased public spending.
5. Pandora Papers
The violence used against his people during the estallido were the first reason for parliamentarians to start impeachment proceedings against President Piñera. His appearance in the Pandora Papers was the second. When the Pandora Papers leaked, it was discovered that Piñera, through offshore dealings, had a political role in the sale of a mining project near a protected environmental area.
In the leaked documents, the final payment on the mine’s sale, by Piñera to an old friend, depended on the government’s decision to declare its location near the Humbold Reserve a nature reserve. Meaning the then-government, headed by Piñera, had direct political influence of the outcome of the project. Piñera did not declare the area a natural reserve, despite appeals from environmentalists. The president had previously declined to have been involved.
Piñera II ends with an approval rating of 15 percent, where the Pinochet dictatorship ended with an approval rating of 22 percent. A telling number: both left and right are happy to see Piñera go.
Editor-In-Chief Boris van der Spek is the founder of Chile Today.