Chile's Pinera is hardly a Latin American Berlusconi

The conventional wisdom in the media is that Chile's president-elect Sebastian Pinera will be Latin America's version of Italy's scandal-ridden leader Silvio Berlusconi. Both are right-of-center business tycoons who won their countries' elections with the help of their media empires and soccer teams.

But will Pinera really become "nuestro Berlusconi," as many Latin Americans are already calling him?

In fact, there are five powerful reasons why he may do better than the Italian leader, who is at the center of numerous sexual, business and political scandals, and one less apparent reason why he may turn out being just as controversial.

Let's start with the differences.

First, Pinera has a much more solid academic foundation than the Italian prime minister, and, for that matter, than most world leaders.

Pinera graduated first in his engineering class at the prestigious Catholic University of Chile and later got his Ph.D. in economics from Harvard. That's the real thing, way beyond the usual one-year courses many politicians take in order to put the word "Harvard" on their resumes.

After obtaining his doctorate with a thesis on the economics of education in developing countries, he taught economics at Harvard and four Chilean universities for 16 years, while building his business empire. By comparison, Berlusconi obtained a law degree, writing his thesis on the legal aspects of advertising, but never returned to academia afterward.

Second, Pinera has much more political experience than Berlusconi had when he became prime minister. The Chilean president-elect served as a senator from 1990 to 1998, starting a political career two decades before winning the presidency. By comparison, Berlusconi ran for prime minister as a political outsider in 1994 and won.

Third, Pinera's business career has been far less controversial than Berlusconi's. While the Italian prime minister has faced allegations of Mafia connections, tax fraud and widespread corruption -- he conceded on July 5, 2008, that he was "the universal record-holder for the number of trials in the entire history of man" -- Pinera's business career has been much smoother.

The Chilean president-elect is credited among other things with building up Lan Chile from a mediocre Chilean firm to one of Latin America's biggest and perhaps finest airlines.

Fourth, Pinera has been married for 36 years, has four children and is known as a family man. By comparison, Berlusconi is twice divorced and has been at the center of a succession of sex scandals, the most recent one involving young female escorts who were flown to his private parties at his vacation villa in Sardinia last year.

Fifth, Pinera may be less of a right-winger, and more respectful of political institutions, than Berlusconi. Unlike some of his supporters, Pinera opposed former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet in the 1980s and has been pretty liberal on social issues. During the campaign, Pinera supported civil unions for gays.

What could turn Pinera into a Latin American Berlusconi? Critics say Pinera, like many billionaire entrepreneurs, has a hyperactive, assertive personality that sometimes comes across as arrogant. If he doesn't control it, he may make more headlines for his verbal outbursts than for his achievements in office, they say.

My opinion: I have been a big fan of Chile's outgoing leftist coalition governments, which not only proved that there can be a responsible, globalized left in Latin America but reduced the country's poverty rate from 43 to 13 percent of the population over the past 20 years. That's a success story unmatched in the region.

If Pinera had supported the Pinochet dictatorship or promised to undo some of the achievements of recent Chilean governments or had a propensity for personal scandals, I would be leery about him.

But Pinera is likely to head a centrist government that will try to speed up Chile's ongoing path to the first world. For now, he looks much more promising than a Latin American Berlusconi.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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