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Chile's president basks in political glow of rescue

Chile and its billionaire President Sebastian Pinera have both burnished their images with the flawlessly executed rescue of 33 miners trapped deep underground for more than two months.
Image: Chilean President Sebastian Pinera poses with the 33 rescued miners inside the Copiapo Hospital
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, center with tie and no sunglasses, poses Thursday with the 33 rescued miners at the hospital in Copiapo where they are undergoing medical exams.HO / Chilean Presidency via Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

Chile and its billionaire President Sebastian Pinera have both burnished their images with the flawlessly executed rescue of 33 miners trapped deep underground for more than two months.

Already respected by investors looking for opportunities in largely left-leaning South America, Chile's reputation for efficiency was enhanced by the technically complicated rescue operation on Wednesday.

Pinera, 60, a credit card and airline magnate who took office in March for a four-year term as Chile's first conservative president in two decades, is already basking in the glow of success.

"Chile is not the same country that it was 69 days ago," he said, beaming, after greeting and hugging each of the miners as they were lifted from to safety in a metal capsule through a long shaft. "We are more respected."

The final rescue operation, which took less than 24 hours after weeks spent digging an escape shaft hundreds of yards (meters) down to the miners, was viewed by hundreds of millions of people around the world and sparked celebrations throughout Chile.

Pinera's approval rating surged to a new high in August for his efforts to rescue the men when they were first located alive 17 days after the mine caved in.

His handling of the crisis helped him push through a bill to raise royalties paid by mining companies in the world's top copper producer to help fund reconstruction after a devastating February earthquake.

The lower house of Congress approved the royalty bill on Wednesday, as the rescue was underway, in a major political victory for Pinera.

But the boost to Pinera's approval ratings may be short lived, said Carolina Segovia, a pollster at Santiago-based think-tank Centro de Estudios Publicos.

"Rally-around-the-flag issues like this one usually have a short shelf life," she said. "Long-running issues such as the economy and crime will dictate his popularity, and by extension his clout in Congress, over the long term."

Pinera's next test in the legislature will be passage of his 2011 budget proposal. Lawmakers will debate the proposal this month.

"The rescue should have a very positive effect on Pinera. It showed an incredible amount of seriousness in terms of patience, planning and resources, which underscores Chile as a member of the developed world," said Walter Molano, head of research at BCP Securities in Greenwich, Connecticut.

"I do not know that it will have an immediate impact on investment, but it will have a lasting impact on the way that the world perceives Chile," Molano added.

Leaders who fumble crises like these often pay a high political price. Then U.S. President George W. Bush was accused of a sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, which pushed his approval rating down by more than 10 points after the disaster.

U.S. President Barack Obama's ratings sank by seven points for what some saw as his failure to act decisively after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And in Pakistan, President Asif Ali Zardari's decision to continue with a planned trip to Europe in spite of the monsoons that left millions of people homeless prompted vicious criticism at home.

Pinera's response to the miners has done the opposite.

The mine's collapse on August 5 shocked Chile and unveiled the underbelly of its mining industry, which had made significant improvements in safety standards.

Pinera fired the government's chief mining regulator, moved to strengthen safety laws and increased regulation of Chile's coal mines in the south to the mineral-rich Atacama desert in the north, where the ill-fated San Jose gold and copper mine is located.

Pinera was quick to seek out world class experts to get involved in the operation, consulting U.S. space agency NASA and drawing on the expertise of miners, geologists and drillers at Chile's state copper giant Codelco and beyond.

The result was an engineering feat that hypnotized the world as engineers located the miners with a drill hole about as wide as a grapefruit, enabling them to send down food and water to keep them alive.

Then came the next challenge: widening the duct to send down a capsule just big enough to hoist out one man at a time.

The rescue prompted praise from many foreign leaders, including Obama and also an ideological foe, Venezuela's firebrand leftist President Hugo Chavez, who called to congratulate Pinera.

Alberto Ramos, an analyst at Goldman Sachs, said the saga would have little impact in terms of pulling in new investment but added that Chile was already an attractive market and the competence with which it handled the rescue underlines how well organized and efficient the country is.

It also allowed Pinera to demonstrate he is not just an effective businessman and politician, Ramos said. "This has certainly helped President Pinera's popularity as it was the opportunity to show his human, caring side."