Sebastián Piñera, Former President of Chile, Dies in Helicopter Crash

Sebastián Piñera, Former President of Chile, Dies in Helicopter Crash

Sebastián Piñera, a former president of Chile who helped strengthen the nation’s young democracy after becoming its first conservative leader since a military dictatorship, died in a helicopter crash in Chile on Tuesday, the government said. He was 74.

The helicopter, carrying four people, crashed into Lake Ranco in the Los Ríos region in southern Chile about 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, shortly after taking off, the government said. Three people survived and swam to shore, and the Chilean Navy recovered Mr. Piñera’s body. It is unclear who was piloting the aircraft, but Mr. Piñera was known to fly his own helicopter.

Mr. Piñera was a billionaire businessman and investor who served two terms as Chile’s president, from 2010 to 2014 and from 2018 to 2022.

A conservative, Mr. Piñera ushered in pro-business policies that helped boost growth and make the nation of 19 million, in his words, “a true oasis” in Latin America.

But he also faced enormous protests from residents who said his government disregarded the poor — Chile is one of the world’s most economically unequal nations — and he left office both times with low approval ratings.

“President Piñera contributed, from his perspective, to build broad agreements for the good of the nation,” President Gabriel Boric of Chile said in a televised address on Tuesday. “He was a democrat from the very beginning and genuinely sought what he believed was best for the country.” Mr. Boric announced three days of national mourning.

Perhaps Mr. Piñera’s most significant legacy was helping Chile’s conservative movement win power for the first time since the end of Chile’s brutal military dictatorship under Gen. Augusto Pinochet in 1990.

After 20 years of leftist rule following the dictatorship, his first election, in 2010, showed that Chile’s democracy was strong and healthy, said Robert Funk, a political science professor at the University of Chile.

“He did that basically on his own,” Mr. Funk said. “He pushed the parties on the right to participate and accept the rules of the game at a time when they were not so convinced.”

Mr. Piñera is survived by his wife, Cecilia Morel, whom he married in 1973, and their four children.

Mr. Piñera made his first fortune by introducing credit cards to Chile during the dictatorship in the early 1980s. He later used those funds to invest in a vast array of companies, including in real estate, banking, energy and mining. He owned a television broadcaster along with major shares of an airline and a professional soccer club.

He then used his wealth to enter politics, first as a senator and later as president.

Mr. Piñera steered Chile through some of its most difficult moments in recent years. Weeks after he was elected in 2010, a powerful earthquake and tsunami killed 525 people in the country and displaced an additional 1.5 million.

Later that year, Mr. Piñera staked his presidency on rescuing 33 miners who were trapped nearly a half-mile underground. His government’s elaborate plan — drilling a narrow hole and lowering a custom-made capsule — was successful, and Mr. Piñera embraced and celebrated with the men as they were lifted to freedom one by one after 68 days underground.

In his second term, Mr. Piñera oversaw his government’s widely praised response to the pandemic, as he secured a large stock of vaccines from China and rolled out an efficient vaccination program.

His government also faced mass protests in 2019 that began over a small hike in subway fares but eventually ballooned into broad complaints over inequality.

Mr. Piñera used the military to quell the protests, and later clashes between the police and demonstrators left more than 30 civilians dead and 460 others blinded or with severe eye trauma from rubber bullets.

Eventually, Mr. Piñera acquiesced to demands for a national referendum on whether to scrap Chile’s Constitution, which had roots in the dictatorship. Chileans voted overwhelmingly to draft a new charter, but last December, after four years and two failed constitutional plebiscites, the nation chose to live, for now, with the current text.

Mr. Piñera was an efficient and skilled manager, who in general oversaw a broad improvement in Chileans’ quality of life, Mr. Funk said, but he also often failed as a politician and communicator, particularly in understanding poorer people’s problems.

“He governed through an Excel spreadsheet,” Mr. Funk said. “He said we’re doing well on this box, on this box. But his failure was that he didn’t have a sense of the politics beneath that, of people’s frustration, of how his governments would really rub people the wrong way.”

Mr. Piñera also faced scandals. He went into hiding briefly in the 1980s when the authorities sought to arrest him as part of an investigation into fraud at a bank he helped lead. He was never convicted.

When he transitioned from business to politics, he was criticized for conflicts of interest between his investments and his positions in public office.

As president, he was eventually forced to have his assets managed by blind trusts. Yet, it was later revealed that he had moved much of his wealth to tax havens in Luxembourg and the British Virgin Islands, said Sergio Jara, the author of a book on Chilean business leaders, including Mr. Piñera.

“He was a voracious and diverse investor, owning minority shares in over 100 companies,” Mr. Jara said. “This allowed him to build one of Chile’s greatest fortunes.”

John Bartlett contributed reporting from Valdivia, Chile.