Chile ex-president Pinera dies in helicopter crash, aged 74

Chile's former president Sebastian Piñera, seen here on December 9, 2021, has died in a helicopter crash at age 74 (MARTIN BERNETTI)
Chile's former president Sebastian Piñera, seen here on December 9, 2021, has died in a helicopter crash at age 74 (MARTIN BERNETTI)

Chile's former president Sebastian Pinera, a billionaire tycoon who twice held the South American nation's top job, died Tuesday in a helicopter crash, his office said in a statement.

The 74-year-old Pinera often flew himself around in his own helicopter, and was a former shareholder in the country's national airline, with stakes in television and football, among other businesses.

The crash took place in Lago Ranco, a lake district some 920 kilometers (570 miles) south of Santiago, where Pinera spent vacations with his children and grandchildren.

"It is with deep regret that we announce the death of the former president of the Republic of Chile," his office said in a statement.

Three other people who had been in the helicopter survived the crash.

Leftist President Gabriel Boric, who succeeded Pinera in 2022, declared three days of mourning and a state funeral on Friday, characterizing Pinera as having "genuinely sought what he believed was best for the county."

Former and current Latin American leaders offered their tributes, including Peruvian President Dina Boluarte and former Bolivian presidents Evo Morales and Jeanine Anez.

"Peace to his soul," Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro wrote on X, adding that his country joins Chileans in mourning their former president.

Colombia's Foreign Ministry sent its "sincere condolences" to the Chilean people in a statement remembering the Pinera government's support in Bogota's peace negotiations with the FARC guerrilla group.

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva wrote on X that he was "surprised and saddened" by Pinera's death.

Outside his party's headquarters and at his house in the Las Condes commune near Santiago, dozens of admirers left flowers and messages, and lit candles.

Pinera served two non-consecutive terms in office, between 2010 and 2014 and again from 2018 to 2022.

- Troubled second term -

In 2010, the Harvard-educated economist convinced the electorate that his personal success in business could be transferred to the benefit of society.

He managed to bring back to power a revamped right wing that had rid itself of the baggage of being associated with Augusto Pinochet's 1973-1990 dictatorship.

"He will have all the honors and recognition that he deserves," said Interior Minister Carolina Toha, of Boric's leftist government.

During his first mandate, he led the country's reconstruction efforts after a powerful earthquake and tsunami in 2010, and oversaw the successful rescue of 33 miners trapped in the Atacama Desert.

His second term, however, was fraught with trouble, as rising discontent over Chile's deep-rooted social inequality exploded into protests that started after a rise in metro fares.

A rich businessman seen as the embodiment of the country's injustices, Pinera's martial tone and early decision to deploy the military proved disastrous and failed to quell the growing demonstrations, accompanied by violence and looting.

Protesters demanded a change to an economic model in which healthcare, education and pensions were privately run and there was a massive gulf between rich and poor.

The unprecedented protests convinced parliament to agree to hold a referendum on changing the country's dictatorship-era constitution.

Pinera, who failed to either propose or support the move, again appeared out of touch with the people he governed.

Despite overwhelming support for a new constitution, voters have since twice rejected proposed drafts and Boric has said he is done trying to reform it.

Pinera's woes only increased with the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic and the country's worst economic crisis in decades.

He was later implicated in the Pandora Papers, suspected of a conflict of interests over the sale of a mine by members of his family to a close friend, and completed in a tax haven.

While Chile's Senate blocked opposition attempts to impeach Pinera, he became the subject of a graft investigation.

Pinera ended his second term in office with low approval ratings.

At the time of his death, Forbes magazine estimated his net worth at $2.4 billion.

Pinera was married with four children and nine grandchildren.