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Demonstrators march in San Antonio, Chile, in 2019 (Vivian Morales C. via Wikimedia Commons)

Chile’s Sebastián Piñera: A Legacy of Corruption and Violence

The former Chilean president's demise has prompted a nostalgia that is incompatible with his legacy.

Words: Ramona Wadi
Pictures: Vivian Morales C.

On Feb. 6, Chile’s right-wing former president Sebastián Piñera died of asphyxiation as a result of submersion, after a helicopter he was piloting crashed into a lake at Lago Ranco in the Los Rios region. A few days later, his funeral, held in the capital city Santiago, carried a message on behalf of the Church, asking Chileans “to work together and unify in memory of the former president.”

But Chile’s Communist Party, as well as human rights and memory organizations in Chile, have voiced contention over Chilean President Gabriel Boric’s statement on Piñera’s death. Boric, who was elected president of the University of Chile Student Federation (FECh) in 2011 and was one of the main spokespersons during the student protests between 2011 and 2013, which became known as the Chilean Winter, struck a tone rights organizations described as denialism.

Boric was particularly criticized for stating that during Piñera’s presidency, “the complaints and recriminations were, at times, beyond what was fair and reasonable.” 

The Group of Relatives for the Disappeared Detainees (AFDD) and Londres 38 expressed their condolences while warning against forgetting the human rights violations committed by Pinera’s government, notably the repression of the 2019 protests during which the president authorized military curfews and the military were accused of various human rights violations, including torture, disappearances, and intentionally shooting protestors in the eye.

Members of the Chilean Communist Party Lorena Pizarro and Carmen Hertz rejected Boric’s statement. “What was ‘beyond what was fair and reasonable’ were the murders and mutilations during Sebastián Piñera’s mandate,” Pizarro stated, referring to the late politician’s second term in office. Backing up Pizarro’s statement, Hertz noted that Piñera was “the institutional political person responsible for the serious and widespread violations of fundamental rights during the popular revolt.” 

Neoliberalism and Repression

Liberal Party deputy Vlado Mirosevic, also former president of the Chamber of Deputies of Chile, took issue with Pizarro and Hertz’s comments, stating that Boric is committed to human rights and therefore cannot be described as promoting denialism. “The president has the duty to govern for the great majority, not for the Communist Party,” Mirosevic countered

“What was ‘beyond what was fair and reasonable’ were the murders and mutilations during Sebastián Piñera’s mandate.”

Lorena Pizarro

Calling Piñera “a democrat from the first hour,” Boric highlighted three instances of Piñera’s leadership: the reconstruction of Chile after the Feb. 27, 2010 earthquake, the rescue of the 33 miners from the San Jose copper mine north of Copiapo in the same year, and the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The other side of Piñera’s legacy — notably the 2011-2013 student protests, and the 2019-2022 Estallido Social protests — is largely connected to the neoliberal politics implemented during the US-backed dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1990. 

Neoliberalism and the ensuing repression to ensure the economic model’s survival remained unchallenged by governments across the political spectrum since the democratic transition, notably through the anti-terror legislation which center-left and right-wing presidents used to repress the Mapuche Indigenous people. Piñera created the ultimate reconstruction of the dictatorship era in 2019, and it is in this context that Boric’s statements have been perceived as denialism in a society that is still dealing with its dictatorship trauma, and in which socio-economic inequality thrives. 

Wealth and Politics under the Pinochet Dictatorship

Piñera’s closeness to the Pinochet dictatorship through association started with his brother José Piñera Echenique, one of the Chicago Boys who studied under Milton Friedman and who later served as Minister of Labor and Social Welfare and Mining. 

Prior to entering politics, Piñera studied economics in Harvard University, obtaining a Masters and PhD with a thesis on the economics of education in developing countries. He taught economics in several universities across Chile and also worked as a consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank between 1974 and 1976, and for the World Bank between 1975 and 1978. Both banks gave financial support to the Pinochet dictatorship.

Piñera also assumed several positions in the financial private sector and in 1979 created Bancard S.A., which saw the introduction of credit cards in the country. In 1982, an arrest warrant was issued for Piñera for failing to transfer over $38 million from Banco De Talca, where he was general manager, to Chile’s Central Bank. His acquittal was facilitated by Monica Madariaga, who at the time served as justice minister during the dictatorship. 

Piñera’s first foray into politics was stating that he voted against Pinochet remaining in power in the 1988 plebiscite. The following year, however, he was campaign manager for Hernan Buchi, who had served as finance minister during the dictatorship. Piñera also launched his campaign for the parliamentary elections in the same year as an independent candidate under Renovacion Nacional (RN), and got elected. 

In 1998, when an international warrant issued by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon led to Pinochet’s arrest, Piñera publicly defended Pinochet as RN senator, declaring the warrant an attack on Chile’s sovereignty and appealing for consideration of the dictator’s alleged fragile health. 

Piñera lost the presidential elections to Michelle Bachelet in 2005. In March 2010, he assumed office as the first right-wing democratically elected president since the dictatorship, having defeated Eduardo Frei Ruiz Tagla. He served another presidential term from 2018 until 2022. 

Presidencies, Violence, and Protests

Chile was catapulted to world attention when 33 miners were trapped 700 meters (around 2,296 feet) underground as a result of a cave-in at the San Jose Copiapo copper mine, and rescued after 69 days. For Piñera, the rescue was an opportunity to regain positive traction after facing severe criticism at the handling of the tsunami aftermath in February 2010.

The mining industry in Chile has been linked to neoliberal policies dating back to Pinochet, and Piñera was no stranger to corruption either. In 2021, the Pandora Papers investigation linked Piñera to the 2010 sale of the Dominga mine in the Coquimbo region, in which his children owned a share of 33.3%, to his friend and businessman Carlo Delano, for $152 million, through an offshore company in the British Virgin Islands. The sale included a clause that prevented the owner from “establishing an area of environmental protection in the area of operations of the mining company, as demanded by environmental groups.”

Demonstrators rally against violence, including eye injuries, caused by the Chilean Carabineros (Marcellablues via Wikimedia Commons)
Demonstrators rally against violence, including eye injuries, caused by the Chilean Carabineros (Marcellablues via Wikimedia Commons)

The 2011 student protests were the first collective public manifestation of discontent that highlighted the divide in Chilean society. Students protested the privatization of education and proposed a series of measures for high school and tertiary education — notably free access to public universities and quality education, as well as promoting a pluralistic, democratic, and social responsibility approach. Piñera rejected the students’ demands, stating, “There are some who advocate a total nationalization of education in Chile. We believe that this constitutes a serious error and deeply damages both the quality and freedom of teaching.” From May to October 2011, approximately 1,800 students were arrested for participating in demonstrations and protests for free education in Chile. 

In November 2011, Cristian Labbe, a former agent under Pinochet’s DINA secret police and at the time mayor of Providencia, organized a book launch celebrating one of the dictatorship’s most notorious torturers, Miguel Krassnoff Martchenko. At first Piñera expressed regret for being unable to attend the launch of the fourth edition of the book “Miguel Krassnoff: A Prisoner for Serving Chile,” and wishing them success, adding that “Brigadier Miguel Krassnoff Martchenko symbolically represents the officers and junior personnel of the period 1973-1978.” The statement was later retracted and claimed to be unauthorized by Piñera. 

It was Piñera’s second presidency, however, which revealed the right-wing’s attachment to dictatorship tactics.

A more refined response by Piñera was made the next year, when Teatro Caupolican screened “Documental Pinochet ”which glorified the US-backed coup and the dictatorship era. While stating he did not support the tribute, Piñera did not voice opposition. However, protesters were met with state violence, as police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the march towards the theater. 

It was Piñera’s second presidency, however, which revealed the right-wing’s attachment to dictatorship tactics, and once again, it was the students that ignited the protests over a 4% increase in bus fares in October 2019, which triggered a nationwide, collective reaction. Pinera’s response was to declare a curfew — the first since Chile’s return to democracy —  and unleash the military on the streets. “We are at war with a powerful enemy,” Piñera declared, as violence was waged on the entirety of Chile. 

It was the soaring tally of eye injuries and blindness caused by the military shooting directly at demonstrators’ eyes that brought Chile’s plight to world attention. Throughout just 16 days of protests, the president of the Chilean Society of Ophthalmology declared, “the number of eye injuries in Chile threatened to become a world record.” An Amnesty International researcher asserted that the military’s intention was to knowingly cause harm. 

Dictatorship-Era Constitution

As mass protests took place across all of Chile highlighting the country’s social inequalities, demonstrators rallied to abolish the dictatorship-era constitution. A month later, in November 2019, Piñera agreed to hold a referendum on whether Chile should pave the way for a new constitution. 

Under President Michella Bachelet, Chile, together with Costa Rica, pioneered the Escazu Agreement, which was an attempt to counter environmental exploitation by governments and multinational companies as well as provide protection for environmental activists across Latin America. 

In September 2018, Piñera withdrew from the agreement. In November that same year, the Comando Jungla, a Chilean special forces unit, murdered Camilo Catrillanca on his own land with a bullet to the head. Catrillanca was the grandson of Mapuche chief Juan Catrillanca who was involved in the Mapuche struggle for land reclamation. Other deaths of environmental activists happened within the same period, all in suspicious circumstances, such as Alejandro Castro — a trade union leader who was found hanged after participating in protests in Quintero. Trade union leader and social activist for workplace safety Alex Munoz Garcia was found hanged in his home. Mapuche leader Marcelo Vega — an opponent of the forestry company Celulusa Arauco — was found drowned in the Lingue River. 

While the divide in Chilean society remains evident, the tone struck by Boric echoes of a rift in a Chilean left already fractured by centrist drifts — it is no wonder the country’s right-wing holds so much sway. From activist to president, Boric’s rhetoric has altered. Piñera’s legacy, however, is sealed, and it is up to the current leadership to speak truth to the evidence.

Ramona Wadi

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