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Former president of Chile Sebastian Pinera dies in helicopter crash

file photo: chilean right wing opposition alliance's presidential candidate pinera casts his ballot in a public school in santiago
Chile's former president Sebastian Pinera

Chilean ex-President Sebastian Pinera died in a helicopter crash in the south of the country on Tuesday, the government and former president’s office said, plunging the country he led for two terms into mourning and prompting an outpouring of condolences from Latin American leaders.

Interior Minister Carolina Toha confirmed the death of the 74-year-old former president, who held the office from 2010 to 2014 and from 2018 to 2022.

Three other passengers survived the helicopter crash in the southern town of Lago Ranco. Pinera’s body had been recovered, said Toha.

Pinera, also a successful businessman, oversaw quick economic growth and a steep fall in unemployment during his first 2010 to 2014 presidency, at a time when many of Chile’s trade partners and neighbors were facing sharply slower growth.

His second presidency from 2018 to 2022 was marked by violent protests against inequality that led to accusations of human rights violations and ended with the government promising to draft a new constitution.

Pinera also oversaw the country’s COVID-19 pandemic response, which included one of the fastest vaccination rates in the world.

One of his first administration’s high points, touted often by Pinera himself, was the spectacular rescue in 2010 of 33 miners who were trapped underneath the Atacama desert. The event became a global media sensation and was the subject of a 2014 movie, “The 33.”

 

CREDIT CARDS MADE HIS FORTUNE

The son of a prominent centrist politician, Sebastian Pinera was a Harvard-trained economist who made his fortune introducing credit cards to Chile in the 1980s.

He was also a major shareholder in the flagship airline formerly known as LAN, local soccer team Colo-Colo and a television station, although he sold most of those holdings when he took over the presidency in March 2010. As of 2024, he was ranked 1,176 on Forbes’ global rich list, with a net worth of $2.7 billion.

Known to have a driven and competitive personality, one friend described Pinera as someone who could be a bully, reluctant to delegate responsibility.

He was also a risk-taker who flew his own helicopter and enjoyed deep-sea diving.

Running for election to the presidency after a spell as a center-right senator, he wooed moderate voters by portraying himself as the leader of a new right and an entrepreneur who made his fortune with hard work.

At the same time, he distanced himself from the 1973-1990 rule of General Augusto Pinochet, when more than 3,000 suspected leftists were killed or “disappeared.”

He lost his first attempt at the top job in 2005 to popular center-left candidate Michelle Bachelet, but she was barred constitutionally from running for a second consecutive term and in 2009 he beat ex-president Eduardo Frei by a small margin.

That ended the 20-year rule of the center-left and fended off the bitter memories of Pinochet’s bloody dictatorship that had hurt the right in past elections.

His honeymoon with the electorate was short-lived, though, and his stiff manner contrasted with the more amiable Bachelet, who both preceded and succeeded him as president.

Despite plaudits for his government’s economic record, many Chileans felt he did not do enough to tackle deep inequality or address inadequacies in the country’s education system.

Sebastian Pinera was married to Cecilia Morel, with whom he had four children.

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