Piñera Sworn In As Chile’s New President In Middle Of Tsunami Alert

By Dialogo
March 12, 2010

Sebastián Piñera took the oath of office as Chile’s new president Thursday, succeeding Michelle Bachelet, in a tense ceremony held in the headquarters of the Chilean Congress following three earthquakes in the minutes preceding the ceremony and the issuance of a tsunami alert for the area including the legislative building. In the presence of dozens of foreign dignitaries, guests, and members of Congress - a number of them visibly frightened by the earthquakes that shook this city (Valparaíso) 120 km west of Santiago - the sixty-year-old Piñera was administered the oath by the new president of Congress, Jorge Pizarro, a member of the opposition. “Yes, I swear,” Piñera said in response to the formula in which Pizarro called on him to respect the Constitution. Following the ceremony, the new president took the traditional drive in a black Ford Galaxie convertible with the top down, greeting the people stationed along the route in a rather strange situation, since at the same time many people were evacuating to higher ground. The last half hour before Piñera’s installation was one of anxiety for those who were in the congressional headquarters awaiting the arrival of the outgoing president and the president-elect, since the building was shaken by a 7.2-magnitude earthquake, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which located the quake’s center 144 kilometers south of Valparaíso. Two aftershocks weaker than the first quickly followed, and at the same time that Piñera was stepping onto the red carpet to enter the Congress’s headquarters, the National Emergency Office (Onemi) in Santiago issued a tsunami alert for more than 400 kilometers of shoreline. Less than half an hour after Piñera’s swearing-in, the congressional building began to be evacuated, as AFP could confirm. While an evacuation was being ordered over loudspeakers, members of the national police urged the reporters who were covering the ceremony to evacuate “urgently.” Even without this added drama, the ceremony had been expected to be austere, due to the state of public disaster the country has experienced following the earthquake and tsunami that struck Chile on 27 February, forcing the incoming president to take on the rebuilding of the country. As a symbol of his commitment to this task, Piñera’s first act as president will be to travel, on the day of his inauguration itself, to the devastated city of Constitución, one of those most affected by the tsunami, where he will sign emergency decrees to speed up the rebuilding. “We will not be the earthquake administration, but rather the rebuilding administration,” Piñera has said, having already confirmed that he will ask Congress for modifications to the budget in order to adapt “to the realities and the needs” of the catastrophe. Piñera’s administration is the first right-wing government since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-1990). In the twenty years since, the Concertación, a coalition of four center-left parties, has governed without interruption. One of the new president’s great challenges will be replacing Bachelet, who has set a very high bar: she leaves office with an 84% popularity rating, thanks to the large social projects she inaugurated in the country and to a charisma that has brought her forgiveness for her mistakes, including her slow reaction to the earthquake. Bachelet’s departure from the Presidential Palace Thursday demonstrated the charisma she takes with her. Thousands of people stationed themselves at the exit from La Moneda to see her off and ask her to return as president in 2014, although she asked them “not to make up political fiction.” The new president has promised to continue the previous administration’s social programs, accompanied by a cabinet dominated by businesspeople (even at the Foreign Affairs Ministry), but any polemics that might have arisen as a result have been relegated to secondary status in the face of the formidable work of rebuilding that will fall to the new president.