Latin America


Chile's powerful earthquake came on the verge of a presidential transition. The country's outgoing president is trying to preserve her reputation in the face of criticism of how she responded to the quake. And the incoming president is trying to establish his reputation as a man who can rebuild his damaged country.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Santiago.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Since the earthquake, Chile has appeared to be a two-headed state with liberal President Michelle Bachelet bobbing over one shoulder and conservative President-elect Sebastian Pinera over the other. Visiting dignitaries make a point of meeting with each of them, separately. They both diligently visit the relief efforts. Last week, Pinera looked every bit the man in charge as he strode through the earthquake wreckage with his shirt sleeves rolled up and a security detail swirling around him. But he doesn't take office until tomorrow.

Mr. SEBASTIAN PINERA (President-elect, Chile): (Spanish spoken)

(Soundbite of applause)

BEAUBIEN: At a fundraiser over the weekend for the earthquake relief effort, Pinera sat next to President Bachelet in the front row. And in part of the elaborate dance between the two of them, he spoke first so as not to upstage her.

Mr. PINERA: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Despite criticism by Pinera's people that Bachelet didn't send in the army fast enough to quell looting, Pinera said that his future government is working closely with Bachelet to confront the current emergency.

The 60-year-old Pinera is one of the richest men in Chile. Last year, Forbes slotted him at number 701 on their list of the world's billionaires.

The Harvard-educated businessman made his fortune in various sectors here: airlines, real estate, media, banking, particularly credit cards. Pinera also ran for president in 2005 but lost to Bachelet. In the most recent election, the left splintered, and Pinera garnered support from the far right to win. Particularly since the quake, however, he's vowed that his administration will be one of inclusion, and its main focus will be the reconstruction.

Mr. PINERA: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Pinera pledged not just to reconstruct what the earthquake and tsunami destroyed, but to tackle the bigger challenge of building a better country. During his campaign, Pinera vowed to return Chile to the economic boom years of the 1990s. He promised robust annual growth of six percent for one of the strongest economies in Latin America. But now the massive reconstruction is expected to dominate his single four-year term. In Chile, incumbent presidents can't run for reelection.

Political analyst Aldo Cassinelli said the earthquake may help Pinera.

Mr. ALDO CASSINELLI (Political Analyst): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: The atmosphere has changed, Cassinelli says, and a disaster of this magnitude makes the people and particular political parties more amenable to working together.

Frank Smith with the Christian charity World Vision in Santiago also says that Pinera needs to move quickly, but in terms of providing aid and basic services to the hundreds of thousands of people whose homes were damaged or destroyed.

Mr. FRANK SMITH (World Vision): If you don't have that, you risk creating a situation where people feel abandoned.

BEAUBIEN: This was one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded and it rattled the most populous part of Chile.

Mr. SMITH: We're all feeling a state of existential insecurity. We feel unsure about the world we live in. There's aftershocks every day. Last night there was a terrible one that sent us running outside. Now, to reestablish that sense of safety in the world, people need to feel that they're not alone, that their government is looking after them.

BEAUBIEN: In the days and months ahead, that task of looking after them won't be in the hands of an incredibly popular, European-style socialist Michelle Bachelet, it will be the challenge for an extremely successful capitalist.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Santiago.

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