SANTIAGO, Chile -- As conservative billionaire Sebastian Piñera was sworn in as Chile's 38th president on March 11, hanging lamps and flower displays in the Chilean Congress swayed due to aftershocks from the earthquake that had fractured a large swath of the country less than two weeks earlier. The tremors were a reminder that Piñera's success as president, and perhaps the future of his party, will depend on his ability to lead an efficient recovery from the country's worst natural disaster in 50 years.
The 8.8-magnitude earthquake that shook Chile before dawn on Feb. 27 toppled buildings and bridges and sent tsunamis smashing into coastal villages. It killed more than 500 people and destroyed, or severely damaged, half a million homes and more than $5 billion worth of public infrastructure. The disaster came on the heels of a tectonic shift in the country's political landscape, when on Jan. 17, Piñera became the first conservative candidate to win a presidential election in Chile in 52 years. His election ends two decades of rule by the center-left Concertación, which restored democratic government following the 17-year military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
The earthquake and its residual consequences significantly raised the stakes for Piñera, a 60-year-old, self-made magnate with a doctorate in economics from Harvard University. Outgoing President Michelle Bachelet, who defeated Piñera at the polls in 2006, was criticized for initially excluding him from the government's response to the disaster, before subsequently inviting the president-elect to later meetings. Bachelet also drew fire for hesitating to send troops to the affected area, which suffered widespread looting on the day after the quake. None of the criticism dented her 84-percent approval rating.