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Rescue may alter Chile's political landscape
COPIAPO, Chile -- As the capsule carried the first rescuer down to the 33 trapped miners, President Sebastian Pinera closed his eyes, made the sign of the cross and then smiled at Mining Minister Laurence Golborne.
The men shook hands and shared a look that said "We did it!"
And when all 33 men had been safely rescued about 23 hours later, Pinera emerged as more than just a president who oversaw a flawless rescue watched by millions worldwide.
He has become a potentially transformational figure who could change the political landscape of Chile and bring the South American nation closer to the developed status it deeply covets.
Pinera was not shy about laying out that vision moments after the first miner was pulled out.
"Chile is not the same country today as it was 69 days ago," he said Wednesday. The nation is "more united and strong than ever, and I believe that today Chile is a country more respected and valued in the entire world."
On a national level, Pinera made good on a central campaign promise: to govern with the obsessive efficiency of a business. More important, he showed the model can work.
While always appearing in charge, Pinera empowered Chile's most experienced mining engineers to do whatever necessary to get the job done. The team he assembled quickly brought in some of the world's best engineers, drillers and scientists, along with powerful drilling rigs worth millions of dollars.
Like any effective CEO, Pinera delegated and then got out of the way, visiting the rescue effort only a few times before the finale.
"The instruction from President Pinera was always: Get them out using all available resources," said Interior Ministry official Cristian Barra, who oversaw the logistics.
Pinera's handling of the timeline was particularly artful.
Soon after the miners were discovered alive Aug. 22, Pinera and top rescue officials repeatedly said it would take up to four months to drill deep enough to reach the men. Pinera even went so far as to say he "hoped" to have them out by Christmas.
The lengthy timeline never squared with experts' shorter estimates or the capacity of the three drills that raced to reach the men. However, the strategy allowed Pinera to avoid unmet expectations and overdeliver in a huge way. The government has repeatedly denied claims that it manipulated the timeline, arguing that drilling is an imperfect science impossible to predict with precision. But the Plan B drill finally broke through to the miners Oct. 9, a day ahead of the rescue team's internal estimate.
By all accounts, the billionaire politician's management of the rescue has translated into stronger support.
Only 46 percent of Chileans approved of Pinera's government in July, according to the independent Adimark polling company. That jumped to 53 percent in September, with 74 percent agreeing that Pinera personally is capable of confronting a crisis and solving problems.
Political analysts believe polls being conducted this week will show an even bigger spike.
That is a huge boost for a president who won last year's election by a small margin, becoming the first elected right-wing leader in a half-century. Pinera took over only days after February's devastating earthquake, and outgoing Michelle Bachelet's 84 percent approval ratings were undented by sharp criticism for her government's fumbled tsunami warning and her daylong delay in deploying soldiers to the disaster area.
His handling of the rescue could fortify his domestic agenda and help his center-right National Renewal Party take a larger share of center-left voters, including the poor, a segment of the population where he has had little support.
Indeed, Pinera was sounding much like his populist South American neighbors in rousing speeches as the miners were being pulled out, promising that his government would bring about a "radical change" in how Chile enforces workplace safety regulations.
"Business executives must take better care of their employees, because the principal wealth of our country isn't copper, it's the miners. It isn't natural resources, it's the Chileans," he said. "We are going to adopt completely the standards of developed countries. If Chile wants to be a developed country, it's not just to be able to sit down at the same table with European countries. It's also to treat our workers as if we were a developed country."
Pinera began a weeklong European tour Saturday with plans to meet with Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron and Queen Elizabeth, as well as the leaders of France and Germany. While his rescue team was working to reach the miners, he met in the United States with Microsoft's Bill Gates and Apple chairman Steve Jobs, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"This has made him an international star, but that will be short lived," said Patricio Navia, a professor of Latin American studies at New York University. "The international perception that will stick around will be that the Chilean government can do great things."
And that could bolster Chile's image as the most stable and efficient economy in Latin America, potentially attracting more foreign investment and tourism.
Transforming Chile into a First World country is a much more gargantuan task than safely pulling 33 miners to the surface.
About 15 percent of the country's 17 million people live below the poverty line, minimum wage for many jobs is 172,000 pesos ($358) a month, and there are still areas lacking electricity and running water.
Pinera still has many social problems to confront, such as inequalities in education and income, increasing health care costs and the complaints of the Mapuches, an indigenous group intent on reclaiming its land.
Still, central to any achievement is the belief that it can be done, and watching a harrowing rescue pulled off in textbook manner has affected how Chileans see themselves.
"This has united Chile," said Cecilia Aguirre, 40, wife of a miner. "And the whole world has watched us."
Associated Press writers Michael Warren, Vivian Sequera and Eva Vergara contributed to this report.