Sebastian Piñera on Earthquakes and the Economy

Thirteen days before Sebastián Piñera began his four-year term as Chilean president in March, the country suffered one of the most powerful earthquakes in recorded history. The first conservative elected president of Chile since 1958, this Harvard economist and self-made billionaire made earthquake recovery his top priority while taking an increasing role in Latin American affairs. NEWSWEEK's Jimmy Langman recently spoke with Piñera in Santiago's La Moneda palace about the earthquake, the economy, and the U.S. Excerpts:

How is Chile doing with its earthquake-recovery efforts?

When we began office on March 11, 1,250,000 students could not attend school because the buildings were destroyed or severely damaged. And within 45 days all the students were back to school. We have restored access to public health services. We had to face the problem of 200,000 homes destroyed, and we were able to build almost 70,000 emergency homes in less than 90 days. We have rebuilt bridges, airports, and ports. But that was not our only challenge. We also had to put our economy back to work. I think we have been extremely successful. Last year our economy decreased 1.5 percent. This year we are on track to grow 5 percent.

How are you boosting economic growth?

We are trying to change the way that we manage the public sector and create real, clear, and effective incentives. We are providing more incentives for investment, and for innovation, so that entrepreneurs will take care of problems and not just sweep them under the rug. We have lowered some taxes.

Do you believe in following a neoliberal economic model?

I believe in a real democratic system, with a state of law and freedom of the press. I believe in a free, open-market economy integrated with the world. And I believe in equality of opportunity. Those are my basic beliefs. On top of that, of course, I believe in some moral values. Basically, in Latin America, there are two visions. One is that of countries like Venezuela. We are following a different path in the democratic system, the development system, and the social system.

How is your relationship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez now that you are co-presidents of the newly created Community of Latin American and Caribbean States?

I have not changed my opinion on Venezuela. They have a different model. And I am sure he also agrees that he is following a different model than us. On one hand, it is very important that democracy and human rights be defended across borders. But it is also very important to respect the right of each country to choose its own path.

Is there a center-right bloc forming in South America among Chile, Peru, and Colombia to counter the leftist governments in the region?

I think the concept of left and right has lost its meaning. Remember, the origin of that comes from the French Revolution. The left side wanted to cut off the head of the king and the right side wanted to restore the king to his throne. We don't want to cut off anyone's head and we don't want to restore anyone to a throne. So, basically, the idea of a left and right is a little bit obsolete.

Do you think the U.S. foreign policy in Latin America is failing?

I would say that the U.S. has overlooked Latin America. Their priorities have always been somewhere else. And that is a problem and that is a mistake. But we still have hope that President Obama will change this situation. Look at Europe: after two huge and terrible wars they were able to integrate and create the European Community. In the Americas we did not have these problems, but we have not been able to create a hemispheric free-trade agreement. I think the U.S. should assert its leadership in a more effective way.