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Billionaire Pinera takes over presidency, reconstruction effort

Video by Kathryn STAPLEY


Latest update : 2010-03-12

Chilean billionaire Sebastian Pinera was sworn in as president on Thursday even as fresh aftershocks rattled the country. Pinera must now lead the rebuilding efforts following February's 8.8-magnitude earthquake and a devastating tsunami.

AFP - Strong aftershocks and a tsunami alert rocked Chile and rattled nerves Thursday as rightwing billionaire Sebastian Pinera was sworn in as the new president of the quake-hit nation.

The tremors, the strongest since February's 8.8-quake, triggered the alert, which lasted four hours on the mainland and caused panic at the parliament in the coastal city of Valparaiso where Pinera was inaugurated.

Many guests, including seven Latin American heads of state, were visibly shaken, and the parliament was urgently evacuated straight after the ceremony.

"I swear," Pinera said as he took the oath of office, inheriting the presidential reins from wildly popular leftwing leader Michelle Bachelet and now left facing the huge challenge of rebuilding the nation.

He later waved from an open-topped car to those trying flee the area for higher ground in case of a tsunami, after an alert was issued along more than 400 kilometers (250 miles) of nearby coastline.

The tsunami alert was later dropped on land, but maintained for Easter Island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean.

The US Geological Survey also revised down the strength of the most powerful

Who is Chilean President Sebastian Pinera?

aftershock from 7.2 to 6.9, several hours after it occurred at 11:39 am (1439 GMT).

The aftershocks in central coastal areas were peaks in a wave of more than 200 which have shaken the South American nation since the giant February 27 quake, which sparked a killer tsunami and left almost 500 confirmed dead.

No damage or injured were immediately reported after the latest quakes, which were felt in neighboring Argentina and even registered as far away as Hong Kong.

Pinera's first task as president was to be a visit to the ravaged coastal town of Constitucion, one of the worst hit by last month's quake and the giant waves that followed, that left some two million homeless.

His January victory spelled an end to the ruling left-wing coalition that has governed Chile since the end of General Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship 20 years ago.

But the presidency of Pinera, who placed 437th Thursday on the latest Forbes list of the world's wealthiest people with a net worth of 2.2 billion dollars, will be marked by the aftermath of the quakes.

"We won't be the government of the earthquake, we'll be the government of reconstruction," Pinera said recently.

The 60-year-old not only faces the challenge of reconstruction -- which analysts estimate could cost up to 15 billion dollars -- but also takes over from a highly popular outgoing leader.

Crowds waved as they bid goodbye to Bachelet, known to some as the "mother" of Chileans, at the La Moneda Palace in Santiago early Thursday.

Satirical newspaper The Clinic headlined its backpage with the title, "Don't go, mum," while banners called for the nation's first female leader to stand for president again in 2014 elections.

Pinera, a self-proclaimed centrist, has promised he will build on the policies practiced by his predecessor, rather than replace them.

After vowing austerity during his campaign, he is now expected to ramp up spending, borrow abroad and dip into savings from export revenues from the key copper mining industry.

During his campaign, Pinera deflected accusations of potential conflicts of interest between his political ambitions and his corporate empire, which includes shares in Chile's national airline, LAN, which he vowed to sell by inauguration day, and also in a football team, music company and TV channel.

He also successfully put a distance between himself and Pinochet's dictatorship, which had enjoyed the backing of several right-wing parties now behind the billionaire.

Although Chile's economy shrank two percent last year, its first contraction in a decade, it was forecast before the quake to grow between 4.5 and 5.5 percent this year.

Date created : 2010-03-11


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