Former Chilean President Sebastian Piñera dies in helicopter crash

Former Chilean President Sebastian Piñera dies in helicopter crash

Chile's former president Sebastian Pinera, who helped strengthen the country's fledgling democracy after becoming its first conservative leader since a military dictatorship, died in a helicopter crash on Tuesday, the government said. He is 74 years old.

A helicopter carrying four people crashed into Lake Ranco in southern Chile's Los Rios region shortly after takeoff at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, the government said. 3 survivors swam ashore and the Chilean Navy recovered Piñera's body. It is not clear who piloted the plane, but Piñera is known for piloting his own helicopter.

Piñera is a billionaire businessman and investor who served as President of Chile from 2010 to 2014 and from 2018 to 2022.

Piñera, with a conservative streak, implemented pro-business policies that helped spur growth and, in his own words, turned the country of 19 million into a “true oasis” in Latin America.

But he faced massive protests from Chileans, who said his government failed to serve the poor — Chile is one of the most economically unequal countries in the world — and left office with low approval ratings on both occasions.

In a televised speech, Chile's President Gabriel Boric said, “President Piñera, with his vision, contributed to the creation of great agreements for the benefit of the country.” “He was a democrat from the first hour, and earnestly sought what he believed to be best for the country.” Boric declared three days of national mourning.

Robert Funk, a political science professor at the University of Chile, said its first election, in 2010, showed Chile's democracy was solid and healthy after two decades of leftist governments that ended the dictatorship.

“He did it on his own,” Funk said. “It pushed right-wing parties to participate and accept the rules of the game at a time when they were least convinced.”

Piñera is survived by his wife, Cecilia Morel, whom he married in 1973, and their four children.

Piñera made his first fortune in the early 1980s by introducing credit cards in Chile during the dictatorship. He then used the funds to invest in various companies including real estate, banking, energy and mining. He owned a television network, significant stakes in an airline and a professional football club.

He used his wealth to enter politics, first as a senator and later as president.

Piñera has led Chile through some of the most difficult moments in recent times. Weeks after his election in 2010, a powerful earthquake and tsunami killed 525 people and displaced 1.5 million.

That same year, Piñera pledged to use all the resources of his presidency to rescue 33 miners trapped nearly 800 meters underground. His government's elaborate plan—to dig a narrow hole and lower a customized capsule—was a success, and Piñera celebrated with the miners after 68 days underground.

In his second term, Piñera oversaw his government's widely praised response to the pandemic, as it received a large supply of vaccines from China and launched an efficient vaccination program.

His government faced mass protests in 2019 that started with a small increase in subway fares but eventually turned into widespread complaints about the country's inequality.

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Piñera deployed the military to quell the protests, which resulted in more than 30 civilians being killed and 460 others blinded or seriously injured by rubber bullets in the ensuing clashes between police and protesters.

Finally, Piñera agreed to a demand for a national referendum to abolish Chile's constitution, which is rooted in dictatorship. Chileans voted overwhelmingly in favor of creating a new Magna Carta, but last December, after four years and two failed constitutional referendums, the nation chose to live with the current text.

Funk said Piñera was an able and effective manager who oversaw a vast improvement in the standard of living of Chileans in general, but who often failed as a politician and communicator, especially in understanding the problems of the poor.

“I manage with an Excel spreadsheet,” Funk said. “I said we are doing well in this box and the other. But his failure is that he has no sense of politics, of people's frustrations, of how their governments can upset people.

Pinera also faced scandals. In the 1980s, He was in hiding for a while He helped run when authorities tried to arrest him as part of a bank fraud investigation. He was never punished.

As he transitioned from business to politics, he was criticized for conflicts of interest between his investments and his public positions.

As president, he was forced to manage his assets through blind trusts. However, it was later revealed that he had moved most of his wealth to tax havens in Luxembourg and the British Virgin Islands, said Sergio Jara, author of a book on Chilean business leaders.

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“He is a volatile and diverse investor with minority stakes in more than a hundred companies,” Zara said. “This allowed Chile to have one of its first fortunes.”

John Bartlett Contributed reporting from Valdivia, Chile.

Jack Nicas is Head of the Brazil Bureau covering Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. He previously reported on technology from San Francisco and was at The Wall Street Journal for seven years before joining The Times in 2018. More by Jack Nikas

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