Chilean President Sebastián Piñera doesn’t think that Chile needs to be the economic giant of South America.
But Piñera does think that his country’s economy could be more developed, he told students at a World Leaders Forum event on Monday.
Speaking to a crowd that filled Low Library Rotunda to capacity, Piñera discussed his administration’s efforts to stabilize the Chilean economy in the context of the country’s history.
Once “the poorest Spanish colony,’’ Chile has developed into one of the most stable and prosperous nations in Latin America, Piñera said.
He discussed the main goals he hopes will define his administration, including achieving a six-percent average growth rate, eradicating extreme poverty, improving the quality of education and healthcare, and strengthening Chilean democracy.
Piñera, who has been president since 2010, said he hopes to “transform Chile into a country without poverty, with opportunities for everyone.”
Chile bases its economic policy on a fiscal rule that saves revenues above a fixed price on copper, Chile’s main export, in offshore accounts. That rule is a legacy of General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Piñera, a Harvard-trained economist and former businessman, said that under his administration, Chile has seen average growth rates approaching six percent.
While he said the country is “close to a full employment situation,” Piñera acknowledged that “Chile still has many social problems.”
One of the biggest economic challenges facing Chile is income inequality. A report released in May 2013 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showed that Chile had one of the widest inequality gaps in the world.
As a result, there have been numerous protests against Piñera’s government, especially regarding the high cost of education. Since May 2011, students have called for a new structure that would increase the state’s role in secondary education and end for-profit higher education.
While he dismissed the students’ demands—noting that the country provides universal preschool—Piñera said he supports the protest culture, which he called inherent to Chilean society and a key component of the democratic process.
“Chilean society has changed—it’s much more impatient, much more aware,” Piñera said, adding that protests are indicative of a healthy democracy.
He concluded by discussing foreign relations between China and Chile, a key theme that Columbia’s global centers in Beijing and Santiago have been examining. Piñera said he believes that Chile’s partnership with China is the future of the Chilean economy.
“For 42 years, Chile has enjoyed a very strong relationship with China,” Piñera said. “We were the first to recognize them as a country, the first to endorse their entry into the World Trade Organization.”
“By far, they are our largest trading partner,” he added.
Students who attended the event said they appreciated Piñera’s analysis of Chile’s economic issues.
“The president shed a lot of light on the country’s strategies for job growth, global cooperation with China, and education strategies to defend private education while increasing scholarships and affordable loan programs,” Jenna Dagenhart, Journalism ’14, said.
“I thought Piñera’s overarching goal to eliminate poverty was very powerful, and he did a great job arguing his case,” Dagenhart added.
Jonathan Young, CC ’17, said that Piñera managed to strike a balance between his own point of view and the realities of the issues facing his country.
“He did tout, maybe even glorify, the achievements that his nation had made, not only during his tenure but in the decades before,” Young said. “Yet at the same time seemed to be aware of the struggles that the lower class still deals with.”