On Monday, the president of Chile breezed onto College Walk in a motorcade full of bodyguards and aides. Those of us arriving early to hear him speak were hurried along by the public safety officers on the scene. Inside, the stage was set with two podiums – one for President Piñera, and the other for Provost John H. Coatsworth.
Coatsworth took the stage first to speak about Columbia’s relationship with Chile, noting the Global Center in Santiago as evidence of strong ties between the two. After a brief introduction, he ceded the stage to President Piñera.
Piñera was a compelling speaker, alternately delivering political buzzwords with precision, and dropping charming metaphors, such as one that compared Chile, based on its speed of development, to a hare (and then a tortoise, and then a hare again). He described Chile’s main challenge as that of reaching the World Bank standard of a developed nation, one “without poverty.”
His vision was laid out for us in color-coded charts: here is a nation that easily outstrips the rest of Latin America in GDP per capita, yet still trails behind developed nations such as the U.S. and Japan. Piñera’s desire to join the ranks of “what is called the first world” was palpable, and his commitment to this goal cannot easily be called into question.
Where President Piñera lost the audience a bit, however, was his use of political language, which he used to talk very complicated issues into single bullet points. As he spoke of his need to “transform a dream into a project,” his fist was clenched, pushing against the air in a symbol of the tension surrounding this transformation. Though the sentiment is exactly right, it was hard to feel that this list of goals was quite as concrete as it could be.
Some of the points were very specific; among them, creating one million new jobs in the next four years, and maintaining an economic growth rate of 6%. These specific plans were mixed in with more simplified points such as “improve the quality of education” and “eradicate extreme poverty.”
This is not to say that those goals are unattainable – there was simply not enough time to outline most of the details. When the floor was opened to questions and Provost Coatsworth took up the second podium, Piñera’s educational policies were called into question a bit more. With specific policies to address, he defended his principles clearly and logically.
Possibly sensing the liberal bent of the questions being fired at him, the president largely left political parties out of the discussion, since his own tends to fall more right of center. Instead, he described his ideal of free elementary school and high school, with heavily subsidized higher education, as one option for students. As he explained it, many students want all education to be free.
“The government never does enough,” President Piñera said in explanation of recent protests. Furthermore, he added, “we disagree” that all education should be free and public. As students at Columbia, most of us in the room were not really in a position to argue this point. However, Provost Coatsworth created by far the most awkward moment of the evening when he loudly interjected, “We disagree as well!”
Overall, though, Piñera held his audience captive with his down-to-earth manner. He hit the political message hard, but was still comfortable asking an environmental science professor about the correct pronunciation of the word “desalinize.” The presentation was carefully crafted, but it was honest about both how far Chile has come and how far it still has to go to development. President Piñera is an engaging speaker and an astute politician, and both of these qualities will doubtless continue to serve Chile even after he leaves office.