President Obama’s visit to Chile coincides with President Piñera’s completion of the first year of his four-year term. Although his administration has been highly effective at rebuilding the massive damage of the 2010 earthquake and tsunami, Piñera’s approval ratings are at their lowest level yet. Almost immediately after being sworn in, Piñera took a hit in the polls.
The unnecessary delay in selling two of his most emblematic companies (a television station, CHV, and LAN Airlines) sparked debate on potential conflicts of interest. Although he was able to regain some support after the successful rescue of the trapped miners, a popular revolt triggered by the decision to raise natural gas prices in the south sent approval ratings in a downward trajectory.
Though Piñera later sold his companies (or provisionally signed them over to non-profit organizations) and promptly announced that gas prices would only marginally increase, several other minor unforced and unpopular decisions have underscored his first year in office. Some of these errors can be attributed to the difficulties of running a country ruled by the opposition for the past 20 years. But others should be understood as part of Piñera’s natural entrepreneurial character, which naturally entails a certain amount of risk-taking.
Piñera has found an encouraging niche of popular support for his foreign affairs agenda. His overseas tours are partially behind this outlying pattern of support. In 2010, Piñera visited the prime ministers of the United Kingdom, France and Germany and the president of China. So far this year, he has already met with the leaders of Italy, Israel, Palestine, the Vatican, and Spain. At a regional level, his diplomacy is no less salient. His conservative skew in the ongoing debate with both Bolivia and Peru—over border matters—has found substantive relief in a large part of the population.
Because Chileans have a special receptiveness to foreign policy, Obama’s visit today will likely have an important impact on how Chileans evaluate their president. The powerful image of Piñera shepherding Obama through the streets of Santiago should be able to stall, if not reverse, the downward trend in his approval ratings. Because Chileans feel empathy for Obama, images of the two presidents together will provide a boost to his popularity. Both Piñera and Obama were elected on a platform of “change.”
But Obama can also have an important effect on Piñera’s long-term objective—the re-election of his coalition to power in 2013. Recent research shows that an important part of the electorate in Chile votes on the economy, punishing incumbents who underperform. As one of Chile’s largest export partners, and the second largest import partner, the U.S. has a crucial stake in Chile’s economic welfare. If Piñera were to accelerate negotiations toward duty free trade as part of the bilateral free-trade agreement that entered into force in January 2004, not only could certain sectors of the job market be energized, but small and medium-size interest groups could also see important benefits.
Obama’s visit has the potential to further boost the U.S. President’s popularity but also that of his host. This visit provides Piñera with an exceptional opportunity to start his second year with a second wind.
*Kenneth Bunker is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics.