- The Washington Times - Monday, January 18, 2010

SANTIAGO, Chile — Billionaire and now President-elect Sebastian Pinera invoked the calls to service of John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama as he challenged Chileans to come together to improve their country.

The conservative businessman, who won Sunday’s election by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin over former President Eduardo Frei, vowed to appoint the “best, most prepared, most honest and most dedicated” people to help transform Chile “into the best country in the world.”

But Mr. Pinera’s long and rousing victory speech made no mention of foreign policy other than his vow to fight drug trafficking, and given his recent comments about Chile’s neighbors, he may find unity on a continent dominated by leftist governments very hard to achieve.

Mr. Pinera’s election victory Sunday night ends two decades of uninterrupted rule by a center-left coalition and returns to power the same political parties that provided civic support for Augusto Pinochet’s brutal 1973-90 dictatorship.

That legacy alone is bound to complicate relations with Argentina, whose leader has made prosecuting human rights violators a centerpiece of her presidency, and Uruguay, which just elected a former leftist guerrilla as its president.

According to Mr. Pinera’s campaign Web site, his foreign policy goals include peacefully resolving conflicts, reaching strategic accords and promoting Latin American integration while protecting Chile’s sovereignty and national identity.

“For Chile it’s vitally important to have and maintain good relations with our neighbors and other American nations,” Mr. Pinera’s platform reads.

But while President Michelle Bachelet tried to defuse border tensions with Peru and Bolivia and avoid antagonizing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Mr. Pinera’s more nationalistic tone — and friendship with Colombia’s conservative President Alvaro Uribe — could make relations difficult.

Mr. Pinera has criticized Latin American populism as a failed approach, and in last week’s presidential debate he called Cuba a “dictatorship,” said Venezuela is “not a democracy” and vowed never to concede land or sea that belongs to Chile.

“This tone is clearly going to become an obstacle to building good relations with Bolivia, and certainly with Venezuela,” said Marcelo Mella, a political scientist at the University of Santiago. “It seems to me that nationalistic and chauvinistic declarations won’t help generate a good climate for resolving conflicts.”

As a billionaire with a doctorate in economics from Harvard University who has vowed to create jobs and boost economic growth in the world’s top copper-producing nation, Mr. Pinera has unique business experience among Latin leaders.

But his holdings also could complicate matters for Chilean diplomats.

Mr. Pinera’s investments include a large share of LAN, Chile’s main airline, which has sizable operations in Peru, Ecuador and Argentina that are subject to those governments’ regulations, for example.

While Mr. Pinera has promised to sell off his LAN shares before taking office in March, he wants to keep control of Chile’s leading television channel and most popular soccer team, both of which inevitably have dealings with other countries.

And while Mr. Pinera put more than $500 million in Chilean investments into trusts last year, he reportedly has many other holdings outside Chile.

Mr. Mella, for one, thinks Mr. Pinera soon will moderate his campaign statements. “I don’t have any doubt that a degree of pragmatism will exist once he takes office,” he said.

Associated Press writer Eva Vergara contributed to this story.

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