National Press Club

Chilean president, at NPC luncheon, lays out plan to erase his country's poverty

June 4, 2013 | By Sean Lyngaas | sean.lyngaas@gmail.com

Club President Angela Greiling Keane presents ritual NPC mug to Chilean President Sebastian Pinerat

Club President Angela Greiling Keane presents ritual NPC mug to Chilean President Sebastian Pinerat

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Once the poorest of Spain’s colonies, Chile aims to be “the first Latin American developed country without poverty,” declared Chilean President Sebastián Piñera at a June 4 National Press Club luncheon.

Buoyed by what he said was a “very fruitful and useful” meeting with President Barack Obama earlier in the day, Piñera laid out a four-point plant for landing Chile in the developed-country club: strengthen pre-school education, triple investments in science and technology, create a million jobs and mitigate income inequality.

Though Chile was late to the Industrial Revolution, “we will not arrive late to this new revolution, which is much stronger and deeper than the old one . . . a revolution of this new society of knowledge and information which is emerging in front of us,” he said.

Piñera, a billionaire with stakes in Chile’s largest airline and a popular soccer team, came to office in March 2010 pledging to raise Chile’s economic growth rate to 6% annually.

Given Chile’s intense commitment to free trade over the last several years -- Piñera said his country has trade agreements with 62 countries -– the topic was the top agenda item at his meeting with Obama. The two presidents are trying to advance negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a prospective 12-nation pact that would be the world’s largest free-trade zone.

Though the United States and Chile disagree on trade items like intellectual property rights and pharmaceuticals, they share common ground in labor and environmental standards, said Piñera. And the bigger picture shows that bilateral trade has more than tripled since a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the two countries became official in 2004, he added.

The Chilean president hopes that the TPP negotiations can navigate the tricky terrain of agricultural subsidies to hammer out an agreement by November.

TPP provides more of an opportunity to deepen the rules of international free trade than a shot at greater market access for Chile, said Piñera, because it already has FTAs in some form with all participating countries. “The gains that we can obtain in terms of market access are not that big,” he noted.

But with nine months left in his term, a TPP agreement would be a fitting curtain call for Piñera. To him, Chile’s pursuit of free trade is an instinct borne of its geographical isolation.

With “the driest desert in the world” in the country’s north, the largest ocean on its coast, the “mighty Andes” on its eastern flank, and ice in the south, Chile has no choice but to cast a long reel for partnerships across the world, he told the luncheon.

Though the name Pinochet was not uttered in the hour-long discussion, Piñera gave a nod to how far his country has come since the dictator’s reign in the 1970s and '80s. The country transitioned from dictatorship to democracy in “a very wise and peaceful way,” he said, adding, “maybe that’s why Chile has since then performed so well.”