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Sebastián Piñera, former Chilean president and billionaire mogul, dies at 74

Then-president Sebastián Piñera showed a message reading "We are fine in the refuge, the 33 of us", from the miners trapped in the San Esteban gold and copper mine, near the city of Copiapo on Aug. 22, 2010.HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

Sebastián Piñera, a Chilean billionaire business mogul who twice served as president, becoming the first conservative leader in the country decades after a brutal right-wing dictatorship, died Tuesday in a helicopter crash. He was 74.

The death was announced by Chile’s interior minister, Carolina Tohá, who said three others aboard the helicopter survived the crash in Lake Ranco, about 550 miles south of the capital, Santiago. Naval divers recovered Dr. Piñera’s body, Tohá said.

Dr. Piñera had piloted helicopters in the past, but it was not immediately clear who was at the controls when the craft plummeted into the lake.

Dr. Piñera surged into politics portraying himself as part of a new generation of conservative leadership in a country deeply scarred by the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, who ruled from 1973 to 1990 and waged a widespread “dirty war” that left thousands of perceived political opponents jailed or missing and presumed dead.

Dr. Piñera parlayed his standing as one of Chile’s richest men — with holdings including the country’s then-flagship airline LAN, the soccer team Colo-Colo, and a television station — into a conservative political base that propelled him to victory in elections in 2009, taking office in 2010.

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His first four-year term spanned a period of surging economic growth and falling inflation in Chile, making the country a symbol of success for advocates of free-market policies and austerity-style fiscal controls. Dr. Piñera, although often stiff and combative in public, gained popularity for helping Chile’s economy rebound from an 8.8-magnitude earthquake in February 2010. The quake, which occurred less than two weeks before he took office, claimed more than 500 lives and left billions of dollars in damage.

Then, in October 2010, he became the international face of Chile’s rescue of 33 miners who were trapped underground for 10 weeks, a painstaking operation in the Atacama Desert that was watched by the world.

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“What started as a tragedy is ending as a real blessing,” Dr. Piñera told Diane Sawyer on ABC News. “I think that the miners have given us an example of unity, of teamwork, of faith. Their families, they never lost faith.” (In a 2015 film on the rescue, “The 33,” Dr. Piñera is played by Bob Gunton.)

Banned from consecutive terms by Chile’s constitution, Dr. Piñera spent the next four years expanding his conservative coalition before returning to office in 2018. The economy, which climbed during his first term, was on its way down.

Major protests broke out over lack of economic growth and lagging education systems in rural areas. In cities, students led sit-ins and marches against plans to hike fares on mass transit. Dr. Piñera responded by deploying troops under a state-of-emergency declaration, leading to accusations of human rights violations.

In an attempt to ease the protests, Dr. Piñera rescinded the transit price increases and reshuffled his Cabinet. Troops remained on the streets for weeks in a show of force by his government. “We are at war,” he said after a wave of clashes in capital Santiago.

Many protesters responded by carrying signs: “We are not at war. We are united.”

José Miguel Vivanco, a Chilean-born human rights lawyer who was in Washington during the protests, said he received a call from Dr. Piñera appealing him to return to Santiago to help monitor security forces. Within weeks, Vivanco and his team documented hundreds of abuses by police and troops, including allegations of indiscriminate use of rubber bullets that left eye injuries and other wounds.

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Vivanco criticized Dr. Piñera’s actions but praised him for allowing outside review of the crackdowns. “He was not typical in that sense,” said Vivanco, now an adjunct senior fellow for human rights at the Council on Foreign Relations. “He was a leader who moved a [political] sector that was associated with Pinochet into a more democratic direction.”

In 2021, Dr. Piñera was impeached by the lower house of congress over allegations that he used his political influence in a copper mine deal that involved family business interests. Some holdings were disclosed by leaks about offshore financial dealings and tax havens from a cache of documents known as the Pandora Papers. Chile’s Senate, where Dr. Piñera’s allies held the majority, later voted against removing him from office.

Miguel Juan Sebastián Piñera Echenique was born Dec. 1, 1949, in Santiago. He spent some of his boyhood in New York, where his father served as Chilean ambassador to the United Nations.

He returned to Chile in 1955 and studied business administration at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and then earned a master’s degree and doctorate in economics at Harvard University. He held teaching posts at several universities and worked for the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

He began building his fortune in the 1980s with one of the first companies to introduce credit cards to Chile. He then went on a buying spree: major tracts of land around the country, mines, investments in banking, and a stake in the popular Colo-Colo soccer club. Before he assumed the presidency in 2010, he divested himself of day-to-day control of many of his holdings and sold interests in Chile’s LAN Airlines (now part of LATAM Airlines) and the Chilevisión TV channel. Forbes ranked his net worth this year at $2.7 billion.

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In 1988, Dr. Piñera said he voted against the continuation of Pinochet’s dictatorship in a pivotal plebiscite. Then he positioned himself as a leading figure in attempts to remake conservative politics. When democracy returned in 1990, Dr. Piñera was elected to represent a Santiago district in Chile’s Senate. He served until 1998.

He lost his first run for president, in 2005, to center-left candidate Michelle Bachelet.

In his second bid, in 2009, he defeated former president Eduardo Frei by a narrow margin. Bachelet returned to the presidency when Dr. Piñera left because of term limits.

Dr. Piñera had married Cecilia Morel in 1973, and they had four children. Complete information on survivors was not immediately known.