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The president-elect’s corporate cabinet

President-elect Sebastian Pinera announced his cabinet on Tuesday, leaving many wondering if the 16 men and six women were getting ready to run a country or a business.

The new cabinet that will accompany Pinera when he takes office on March 11 is not full of political old-timers linked to the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, as some feared. In fact, only eight of them are official members of Pinera’s political coalition, and most of them are more technocrats than politicians.

Pinera appointed low-profile professionals and made an effort to include young ones, like the minister of culture, an actor better known for his role in soap operas than in politics; the government spokeswoman, a pretty and articulate journalist who lost a seat in the Senate in December’s congressional elections by just a few hundred votes; and the planning minister, 32-year old Felipe Kast, who holds a Ph.D. in public policy from Harvard, and interestingly enough, degrees in economy and sociology from the University of Havana, in Cuba.

But practically all of the new appointees are cut from a similar mold: the corporate right, most of them economists from the conservative Catholic University with masters and Ph.D.s from prestigious U.S. universities, with ties to conservative religious groups and right-wing think tanks, and many of them still sitting on the board of companies or owning firms in the same area they are supposed to supervise.

There is no doubt they all have excellent academic and professional backgrounds, but what is an economist and member of the Opus Dei who has spent his life promoting the free market doing in charge of education?

Joaquin Lavin, member of the ultra-right UDI party, twice mayor and twice defeated in prior presidential races, was appointed to head the Ministry of Education, although he has absolutely no background in the area. Student federations have already expressed concern that instead of bolstering public education, his mission will be to privatize it all, or demand factory-like performance from schools.

At least in the Health Ministry, Pinera chose a doctor, Jaime Manalich. But not just any doctor — the director of an exclusive private clinic of which Pinera was until recently a shareholder.

One of the most baffling appointments was Alfredo Moreno as foreign minister, an economist with no experience in diplomacy or foreign affairs, save his expertise in expanding corporate operations abroad. A prominent businessman who has sat on many a board (including airlines, banks, health insurance firms and media), Moreno is director of the major retailer Falabella, a multilatina that currently operates in two neighboring countries. One of these countries is Peru, with which Chile is currently involved in a territorial dispute at The Hague that Moreno will have to deal with.

The minister of mining, Laurence Golborne, was until last year general manager of the holding Cencosud, a multilatina that has set up its retail stores and supermarkets in five countries in the region. He also sits on the board of a number of other companies.

Carolina Schmidt, to head the National Women’s Service, has served as general manager and board director of several companies, under the guiding hand of Guillermo Luksic, one of Chile’s most powerful and wealthiest businessmen.

Like Schmidt, the next housing minister, Magdalena Matte, is also tied to a major conglomerate, Claro, sitting on the board of one its companies while being executive director of a paper company.

Attorney Catalina Parot, who will be in charge of National Patrimony, led a successful business career in the wine industry, held a leading position in a major mining company and is now general manager of the Santiago Metro.

Last but not least among the women ministers is the one to preside over the Ministry of Environment, chemical engineer Maria Ignacia Benitez, well-known among environmentalists but for the wrong reasons. Benitez is a sort of lobbyist, or promoter, of energy projects, in charge of environmental impact studies on controversial energy projects that are still to be approved. She will have to supervise them when and if the time comes, wearing two hats at the same time.

Pinera’s economic team was predictable: Felipe Larrain in finance and Juan Andres Fontaine in economy. Larrain, an economist with a Ph.D. from Harvard, has held positions as company director, corporate adviser and international consultant. Fontaine has a master’s degree in economics from the University of Chicago and is a leading researcher of two right-wing think tanks.

As for the more “political” appointments, no doubt the new interior minister is one. Rodrigo Hintzpeter, Pinera’s right-hand man during the electoral campaign, is one of the few lawyers and politicians in the team. Hinzpeter was an enthusiastic supporter of the dictatorship, and will now be in charge of “combating crime” with the additional 10,000 police officers Pinera has promised on the streets.

But certainly the biggest surprise came with Pinera’s choice for the Defense Ministry: Jaime Ravinet, a member of the Christian Democratic Party for almost 50 years until this Tuesday, when he resigned to accept Pinera’s offer. Ravinet, who until this week pledged allegiance to the ruling Concertacion coalition, was also defense minister under President Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006).

Ravinet is one of Pinera’s greatest achievements: turning over a historic Concertacion leader to his side, as he often suggested when speaking about how he wants to preside over a government of unity and agreements with the opposition.

Immediately after losing the elections last month, however, the Concertacion parties pledged they would be opponents to the Pinera administration, and any of its members jumping to the other side would be expelled. After Tuesday, Ravinet has suffered the fury of his former comrades, who have accused him of being a “traitor,” a “black sheep” and even “unmanly.”