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Earthquake-rattled Chile to swear in new president

Last Updated: Thursday, March 11, 2010 - 13:51

Santiago: Conservative billionaire Sebastian Pinera takes office as Chile`s new president on Thursday, tasked with rebuilding the country after one of the worst earthquakes ever recorded killed hundreds of people less than two weeks ago.
Chileans hope the Harvard-trained economist can use his renowned business skills to help one of Latin America`s most stable economies rebound from the quake, which was followed by a tsunami that devastated coastal villages.

"He is a businessman ... and that is what we need right now. Someone who can create jobs for our kids," said Carlos Fuentes, a 47-year-old fisherman who lost his home and boat when giant waves rolled over the town of Curanipe after the 8.8-magnitude quake.

"He`s got a tough job," Fuentes said while untangling fishing nets with a knife.

Even though mines were mostly unscathed in the world`s top copper producer, the quake seriously damaged key wine, fish and paper pulp industries near the epicentre in south-central Chile. Some analysts see the losses shaving a half a point off this year`s economic growth.

Pinera, a former senator, made a fortune on a credit cards business and an airline, becoming one of the world`s wealthiest people according to Forbes magazine.

To fund reconstruction, the new leader is likely to issue international bonds and dip into the country`s copper savings.

Sombre ceremony

The handover of power from popular centre-leftist Michelle Bachelet will be celebrated with an austere midday ceremony, toned down out of respect for those still mourning the dead.

Officials have identified 497 dead from the February 27 quake and tsunami, after revising down an earlier death toll of 802, which mistakenly included lists of the missing.

Pinera`s election marks a shift to the right in Latin America where a generation of centre-left and socialist leaders are in power.

Fellow conservatives President Alan Garcia of Peru and Alvaro Uribe of Colombia were scheduled to attend the inauguration along with leftist leaders such as Argentine President Cristina Fernandez and Bolivia`s Evo Morales.

Pinera and Morales, a soccer fanatic, played together in a friendly soccer match the day before the inauguration, putting aside their countries` historic dispute over landlocked Bolivia`s access to the sea.

Bachelet, a paediatrician-turned-politician, is leaving office with a record high 84 percent approval rating even after criticism of delays in government aid for victims.

The government was also slammed for a faulty tsunami warning system, the botched death toll estimates and hesitating to send in troops to quell violent looting. Pinera has promised a total overhaul of the country`s emergency response office.

Bureau Report

First Published: Thursday, March 11, 2010 - 13:51

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