Chile is by no means the most significant of Latin American countries. But it has been a harbinger of things to come in the region, a sort of California of South America. Thus, the results of the Jan. 17 presidential election runoff made news around the world. For one, they signalled the end of the 20-year rule of the Concertacion, the centre-left coalition that has ruled Chile since 1990. It also marked the first time in half a century that Chile's right has won a national election. With most of South America having turned left, many commentators have seen this, quite wrongly, as a sign of a regional swing to the right.
A standard headline reporting Sebastian Pinera's election said "Conservative billionaire elected president of Chile." The reference to his wealth is true enough. His self-made personal fortune is estimated between $1.5-billion and $2-billion (U.S.), putting him somewhere around 700th in Forbes's world billionaires list and among Chile's top five, and it has been growing by the day - as of last week, his stock in LAN Airlines, which he has promised to sell before taking office on March 11, had risen close to $400-million in value since June, 2009.
But he is anything but conservative, and to liken him to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi because they both own television stations - Mr. Pinera has promised to turn his over to a foundation - is also quite wrong. Always at the top of his class, he is a Harvard economics PhD, a former international civil servant whose first job straight out of Harvard was at the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (often described as Latin America's think tank), a professor at his alma mater (the Catholic University of Chile), the man who brought credit cards to Chile in the late 1970s, and the pilot of his own helicopter.
Mr. Pinera is above all an overachiever. For the campaign, he bought a state-of-the-art printing machine, set it up in a former factory and produced all the campaign material he needed himself. His fine-grained polling, taken from a study done by the retail industry, allowed him to identify exactly what Chile's aspirational, newly emerging middle-class sectors want - and then beat a coalition deemed unbeatable.
Born and raised in a Christian Democratic family, Mr. Pinera was an opponent of Augusto Pinochet, and voted against the general in the 1988 plebiscite that brought an end to military rule. He then threw in his lot with a right-wing party, Renovacion Nacional, was elected to the Senate in 1989, and has made several runs for the presidency. He had many run-ins with the Independent Democrat Union, the other right-wing party in his coalition (and keepers of the military regime's flame) because he is a liberal on social issues. His campaign ads famously featured a gay couple, much to the chagrin of conservatives. He has promised to strengthen the state and to keep Chile's social safety network, much improved under Socialist President Michelle Bachelet.
His main promise has been to create one million jobs, 250,000 a year, by raising Chile's growth rate to 6 per cent. At an average of 5 per cent a year, the latter has been the highest of any country outside Asia since 1990, but has slowed lately. He has also vowed to increase productivity, and to make Chile the first developed country in Latin America within a decade, a homage to the country's 2010 bicentennial.
Chile has done very well in the past 20 years. It has a $15,000 per capita income in purchasing power parity terms, and an FDI-stock-to-GDP rate of 65 per cent, among the highest in the world. Canadian banks and mining companies have thrived there, in part because of its corporate tax rate of 17 per cent. Poverty was reduced from 38 per cent in 1990 to 13.7 per cent in 2006. Just a few days ago, it became the first South American country to join the OECD.
Most people still find it hard to believe that a coalition whose sitting president, Ms. Bachelet, enjoys 80-per-cent approval ratings has lost this election. I did not support or vote for Mr. Pinera, but I have the feeling that if he can restrain his business instincts to continue to increase his personal fortune, and applies his legendary energy (he is known as "the locomotive") and managerial know-how to further unleash Chile's booming economy, he and the country can do very well.
Jorge Heine, a Chilean, is a distinguished fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and a professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University. His latest book (with Andrew F. Cooper) is Which Way Latin America? Hemispheric Politics meets Globalization.