Vina Del Mar | Sebastián Piñera, the two-time former president of Chile who faced social upheaval followed by a pandemic in his second term, died on Tuesday in a helicopter crash. He was 74.
Chile Interior Minister Carolina Tohá confirmed the death of the former president. No further details were immediately released about the cause of the accident.
Serving as president from 2010 to 2014 and again from 2018 to 2022, Piñera led the South American nation during moments of crisis, including the aftermath of an 8.8 magnitude earthquake and tsunami.
He gained a spotlight for his administration's rescue of trapped Chilean miners in 2010, and his governance during the coronavirus pandemic, when Chile was placed among the top five countries for vaccination rates for the illness.
His legacy is marred by violent police repression in October 2019 against protesters who were demonstrating against the country's education, health and pension systems dating to the country's 1973-1990 military dictatorship. A United Nations investigation alleged that police used force “improperly and indiscriminately" injuring protesters, and that government mistreatment of detainees amounted to torture.
The social unrest ultimately led to two attempts to update the constitution that was inherited from the military government, but both have failed.
Piñera's death came as Chile already was recovering from massive deadly wildfires in the county's central region.
Chilean President Gabriel Boric honored Piñera in a speech Tuesday afternoon as a leader “seeking the best for his country,” highlighting his management of the pandemic and other emergencies. “He was a democrat from the very first moment,” Boric said.
The death also drew an outpouring of condolences from leaders and former leaders across Latin America from both the left and right.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that it was sad that Piñera had died so “abruptly.” “We worked to strengthen the relationship between our countries and we always had a good dialogue when we were both presidents, and also when we weren't," he said.
Argentinian President Javier Milei sent condolences, as did his predecessor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
"As everyone knows, we did not have the same ideas, but we were always united by a relationship of great respect: he was a right-wing man but deeply democratic,” Fernández said. “I remember with affection his sense of humor and the warmth of his family, whom I met in Chile.” Piñera was the owner of the fifth-largest fortune in Chile, estimated at some USD 3 billion. He worked as an academic in several universities for almost 20 years and as a consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank. When he closed his time in office, he had created an estimated 1 million jobs.
As a businessman in the 1970s through the 1990s, he worked in a variety of industries, including real estate. He held shares in major airlines, telecommunication, real estate and electricity companies. He also created one of the largest credit card companies in the country. In 2009, he handed over the management of his businesses to others.
He entered politics representing the center-right, which was the civilian support of the military regime. However, when he served as an independent senator, he voted against the extension of dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).
He ran three times for president of Chile. In 2006, he lost to socialist Michelle Bachelet; then in 2010 he defeated former President Eduardo Frei and was elected in 2010. Four years later, in 2018, he won a second four-year term after defeating a leftist independent.
Twelve days before the beginning of his first term, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake and a tsunami claimed the lives of 525 people and devastated the infrastructure of central-southern Chile.
Piñera's government agenda was postponed in order to take on emergency reconstruction. In 2010, he also led the unprecedented rescue of 33 miners trapped for 69 days at the bottom of a collapsed mine in the northern Atacama Desert.
The rescue and the adverse conditions the miners survived captured the world's attention. One of the final social media posts from the deceased leader commemorated their rescue.
It was a song to life that inspired the world and showed the best of the Chileans' mettle and the soul of our nation," he wrote.