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CHILE: Aftershocks Rock Inaugural Ceremony

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Mar 11 2010 (IPS) - While Chile’s new rightwing President Sebastián Piñera, who announced that he would lead “a government of reconstruction,” was being sworn in Thursday, the earthquake-ravaged country was shaken by major aftershocks.

Chile's new President Sebastián Piñera Credit: Chilean president's office

Chile's new President Sebastián Piñera Credit: Chilean president's office

In fact his very first words as president referred to the catastrophe: he advised people in coastal areas to heed the tsunami warning and move inland or to higher ground.

Three strong aftershocks were felt immediately before and during the inaugural ceremony, which was scaled back in consideration for the victims of the Feb. 27 quake that measured 8.8 on the Richter scale.

After the ceremony, held in Chile’s Congress in the coastal city of Valparaíso, 120 km west of the capital, the building was evacuated.

The epicentre of the first of Thursday’s aftershocks, which was 7.2-magnitude, was to the south of Santiago. The other two measured 6.9 and 6.0 on the Richter scale. There were no reports of deaths or major damages.

The Feb. 27 quake claimed nearly 500 lives and destroyed thousands of houses, apartment buildings, roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

In response to the aftershocks, the new president declared the central region of O’Higgins a disaster zone, and announced that he would send troops there, as Bachelet had done with the neighbouring regions of El Maule and Bío-Bío, further south.

After a luncheon with the visiting foreign dignitaries, Piñera headed to the city of Rancagua, the provincial capital of O’Higgins, before going on to Constitución in El Maule, one of the areas hit hardest by the late February quake and tsunami that devastated parts of southern and central Chile.

Geologist say the Feb. 27 quake was the fifth-strongest in the world since 1900.

Piñera, a billionaire media and airline tycoon who represents the right-wing Coalition for Change, received the presidential sash from socialist pediatrician Michelle Bachelet, putting an end to 20 years of rule by the centre-left Concertación (Coalition) of Parties for Democracy, which governed since the return to democracy in 1990, after 17 years of military dictatorship.

His inauguration was attended by presidents Cristina Fernández of Argentina, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Álvaro Uribe of Colombia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, Alan García of Peru, and José Mujica of Uruguay; Spain’s Crown Prince Felipe; Organisation of American States (OAS) Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza; and former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar (1996-2004), a friend of Piñera’s.

U.S. President Barack Obama sent General James Jones, his national security adviser, to represent him. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton attended the Mar. 1 swearing-in ceremony of Uruguayan President Mujica.

Among the notably absent Thursday were Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, as well as Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who briefly visited the country two days after the earthquake to offer his support to Bachelet. He also met with Piñera at the time.

Bachelet, the first woman president in the history of this South American country of 17 million people, left office with a record 84 percent approval rating.

She headed out from her office for the last time Thursday amidst an outpouring of affection and support from huge crowds outside the La Moneda presidential palace who urged her to run for reelection in late 2013.

In an emotional farewell address Wednesday, Bachelet said that on one hand, she was leaving “with great sadness” because of the recent tragedy, but also “with her head held high” because she was proud of what her government had achieved.

Piñera, who is married to Cecilia Morel and has four children, is the Harvard-educated son of a prominent Christian Democratic diplomat. He served as senator for eight years and was defeated by Bachelet in late 2005. His fortune is estimated at 1.2 billion dollars by Forbes magazine, and he holds shares in the private Chilevisión television network, the Colo Colo football club, and LAN airlines.

One of the first measures taken by the new president was the creation of a reconstruction team, made up of members of his cabinet, the armed forces, the National Emergency Office and regional authorities.

“I don’t believe much will change under this new rightwing government, because the economic policies of the Concertación, which have been very successful, have a lot in common with the right, in terms of free market and trade liberalisation mechanisms,” political scientist Miguel Ángel López of the University of Chile told IPS.

“Other elements, associated with the centre-left, like certain notions about the welfare state and defending the most vulnerable” are also present in Piñera’s speeches, the academic noted.

In his view, Chile’s national emergency will make the transition “less dramatic” than it would otherwise have been.

“The earthquake itself has made a government of national cooperation necessary,” said López, although he added that the measures Piñera will adopt are still “uncertain” in many areas.

The 60-year-old Piñera represents the Coalition for Change, made up of the ultra-conservative Independent Democratic Union (UDI), the centre-right National Renewal (RN) party, and other centre-right political forces.

Chile’s last democratically elected rightwing president was Jorge Alessandri, in 1958. That political sector later participated actively in the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006).

“I hope this will be a moderate government that will try to give continuity to the social protection focus that marked President Bachelet’s government and that did us so much good as a country,” 34-year-old Magdalena Cáceres commented to IPS.

The only fear expressed by Cáceres, who closely followed the inauguration, is that “as a businessman (Piñera) might lose sight of social issues, which cannot be tackled with a managerial approach.”

Another Chilean, Fernando Mandiola, told IPS “I’m confident that he’ll do a good job. The only thing I hope for as a citizen is that the country will stay in the centre, that it won’t shift to the far right.” He added, however, that he believes it will be difficult for Piñera to make good on his campaign promises, in the wake of the earthquake.

Flora Zegers, 62, hopes the new administration “won’t put too much emphasis on cracking down hard on crime but will dedicate more resources to education and rehabilitation,” while “continuing Bachelet’s social policies, which ‘trickled’ resources down to the poor.”

But she said she is worried that during the next four years of rightwing government, “capital will become overly concentrated and workers’ rights won’t be respected.”

Because of the new circumstances created by the quake, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT) trade union federation and Confederation of Production and Trade (CPC) business association signed an extension Wednesday of an agreement aimed at generating employment reached during the Bachelet administration.

One of the pending tasks facing Chile’s new president is divesting his 26 percent stake in LAN, Chile’s principal airline. Although Piñera had promised to do so by Thursday, the earthquake, which drove down the price of stocks, delayed the transaction.

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