How the Miners' Rescue Raised Up Chile's President

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera has used the rescue to burnish his country's image as a developed nation — and his own as a compassionate conservative

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Alex Ibanez / Abacausa

The last miner to be rescued, Luis Urzua and Chile's President Sebastian Pinera are pictured after reaching the surface to be rescued from the San Jose mine, near Copiapo, in Chile on October 13, 2010.

On a triumphant tour of Europe just days after overseeing the rescue of 33 trapped miners from their 70-day ordeal, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera was shown the London bunker where Winston Churchill directed the fight against Hitler in World War II. He didn't waste the symbolism. "Many people thought the rescue was impossible," said an exuberant Piñera after having shown Churchillian determination during the rescue effort. "But we made a commitment to look for the miners as if they were our own sons."

Those modest men have been celebrated all over the world, but their billionaire President is also having his moment in the sun. Piñera has won a place in Chileans' hearts as a leader with both compassion and can-do spirit. Even the families of the miners—hardly the natural constituency for a probusiness politician—are singing his praises. Says Liliana Ramírez, wife of the oldest miner, 63-year-old Mario Gómez: "You rarely see [leaders] in Chile move with that much passion and speed for workers like us."

It wasn't just the President who benefited from the joyous rescue, played out before a global television audience. That also helped burnish Chile's image in the eyes of the world and those of its own people. For years, South America's most developed country has struggled to shake off the deeply polarizing influence of the right-wing dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, which killed or "disappeared" some 3,000 political opponents. Piñera, 60, is a political conservative, the first elected to the presidency since the end of the Pinochet era in 1990. But even those who loathe everything Pinochet stood for—not least his contempt for the working class—were reassured by the sight of the President keeping vigil for the miners and hugging them as they emerged from the shaft. In today's Chile, a probusiness conservative can care about miners as well as millionaires.

Populism doesn't come easy to Piñera: he was raised in Chile's elite, wealthy, conservative Roman Catholic circles, which backed Pinochet's rule. (Piñera's brother José served in Pinochet's Cabinet.) After earning a Harvard economics Ph.D. in 1976, Piñera became a professor and banker and helped fashion the free-market reforms that have made Chile a high-growth export powerhouse. He became rich in the process, with stakes in some of Chile's largest companies, including the Chilevisión TV network (sold this year to Time Warner, which owns this magazine) and LAN, Chile's largest airline.

Piñera says he voted against Pinochet in the 1988 referendum that rejected the dictator's rule. After a rocky start in politics in the 1990s, including a scandal involving an attempt to cast doubt on an opponent's Catholic faith, he rose through the conservative ranks to face moderate socialist Michelle Bachelet in the 2005 presidential race. Bachelet won and became one of Chile's most popular Presidents but was constitutionally prohibited from running for a second term. Piñera, learning from his defeat, moved to the center. His "Christian humanist" platform last year embraced not only Bachelet's social programs but also causes like gay rights, to the chagrin of Chile's powerful Catholic right. He won this year's January runoff election with almost 52% of the vote.

After a massive earthquake hit Chile in February, just days before he took office, Piñera won high marks for relief management. Still, his approval ratings took a dive over economic problems and a high-profile prison hunger strike by Mapuche Indians. The ratings seemed bound to sink further with the Aug. 5 collapse of the San José gold and copper mine in the Atacama Desert and the presumed deaths of the 33 men inside. Political allies in Santiago warned the President not to associate himself too closely with the rescue efforts, lest they end in tragedy and rub off on him. But instead, Piñera all but engineered the search campaign himself.

When the miners were located on Aug. 22, Piñera pushed rescuers to speed up their efforts—persuading UPS to ship giant U.S. drilling equipment 5,000 miles (8,000 km) for free. Shortly after midnight on Oct. 13, Piñera was there in a hard hat to welcome the first miner, Florencio Avalos, as he emerged from the abyss. "We made a promise never to surrender, and we kept it," said Piñera, who stayed until the last miner, crew leader Luis Urzúa, stepped out of the rescue capsule less than 24 hours later. "This is a true rebirth."

Milking a success story is a politician's stock-in-trade, but aides insist Piñera's presence at the rescue was necessary to underline a broader message: Chilean business—especially the mining industry, which has a shameful safety record—has to take better care of workers if the country really wants to join the club of developed nations. "Our principal wealth isn't copper. It's the miners," Piñera reminded business owners after the rescue. "Realizing that will make us a lot more productive and efficient at the same time." He then announced sweeping labor reforms, like tripling Chile's mine-inspection budget. Pinochet, who died four years ago, would not have approved—but the new Chile has left him far behind.

This article originally appeared in the November 1, 2010 issue of TIME.