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Pinera struggles to balance business interests and public duties

Is a rough first week a sign of troubles to come for Chile's right-wing president-elect?

Pinera received a graduate degree in economics from Harvard and then returned to Chile in 1976, at the height of the "Chicago Boys" experimentation with free market policies here. He became politically active in the late 1980s and campaigned on a promise to use his "entrepreneurial" skills to reinvigorate the national economy and create jobs.

His market-oriented approach has prompted plenty of other concerns, including what he plans to do with the state-owned copper company Codelco, Chile’s hen with the golden eggs. Codelco has earned the state between $6 billion and $7 billion in revenues over the past four years, helping the government stash away some $20 billion in reserve funds, mitigate the effects of the recent crisis and finance social programs.

A day after being elected, Pinera announced that Codelco needed “a leap forward” in productivity and suggested that he would “introduce private capital” in the company. Miner unions went up in arms, and Concertacion leaders pledged they would not offer a single vote for privatization, which would require a constitutional reform.

But in the realm of social issues, there seems to be more similarities than differences between Pinera’s campaign promises and the government’s general policies, at least on paper.

Pinera has promised to build on outgoing President Michelle Bachelet’s social protection network and expand it to the middle classes. He said he wants to form a Ministry of Social Development to reduce poverty and create 1 million jobs by his term’s end in 2014, as well as invest in various infrastructure projects. The main difference: the additional 10,000 police officers Pinera wants on the streets to combat crime and drug trafficking.

So what’s the fuss about having a right-wing president? What’s not on paper, said teacher Juan Fernando Silva.

“The right has always been intolerant of people’s demands and demonstrations. When teachers, students and workers start voicing their demands, I’m afraid those extra 10,000 police are going to be on the streets not to go after criminals, but after us,” he said, a scene reminiscent of the repression during dictatorship. The election was the first time since 1958 that Chileans voted a right-wing candidate into office.

Although Pinera has promised not to include Pinochet-era buddies in his cabinet, as the single most powerful party in Congress, his ultra-right, conservative allied party UDI will have a leading voice in all things to come. UDI leaders, many of whom have staunchly defended the Pinochet dictatorship and belong to extremely conservative religious groups, are already vying for some cabinet posts.

“It gives me the creeps to think about having an UDI in the Interior Ministry, or the Women’s Service, for example. It will be like turning back decades of progress in civil, women’s and social rights,” said Teresa Gallardo, owner of a small grocery store.