Sebastian Piñera, Statesman: A Personal Reflection

From the liberation of the miners to the liberation of same sex couples and their families, from the copper mines to the copper bowl, Piñera extolled a national pride and patriotism. 


President Piñera (center) hosts a breakfast celebration at La Moneda for the first same-sex couple married in Chile, Jaime Nazar and Javier Silva, along with family members and special guests who contributed to the adoption of marriage equality. Global Americans Board Member Hunter Carter is on the far right. March 10, 2022.

The first and last times I met Sebastian Piñera, former president of Chile, he was triumphal and patriotic. 
The first was when he spoke in New York after the October 13, 2010 liberation of 33 miners trapped in the San José copper mine near the northern town of Copiapó. He produced from his pocket the handwritten note the miners had sent up after Piñera coordinated a massive international effort to rescue them. The last was at La Moneda, the presidential palace, where he hosted a private breakfast for the first same-sex couple to be legally married in Chile. 
Between these two meetings, I was one of many people who sparred with Piñera and his governments over marriage equality. Near the end of his first term, he opposed the admissibility of a petition I cosigned as an attorney on behalf of three same-sex couples in Chile who had been denied marriage equality rights. We argued the American Convention on Human Rights obligated Chile not to discriminate against same-sex couples, especially in family rights. Chile had already lost a case at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, brought by the judge Karen Atala, whose children were separated from her in a custody case simply because she was a lesbian. But Piñera’s government vigorously argued that our case should not even be heard. 
The first president from the political right after the Pinochet dictatorship, Piñera nevertheless displayed surprising leadership when he endorsed the first Chilean hate crimes legislation to protect LGBTQ+ persons, reacting with his nation in horror to the atrocious 2012 murder of Daniel Zamudio. But he remained a stalwart opponent of marriage equality. In June 2010, he announced support for a civil union law for same sex couples, designed to derail marriage equality by providing LGBTQ Chileans with a clearly inferior and discriminatory alternative to marriage. As one senator from the right told me, it was a “different legal framework for different couples.”
President Michelle Bachelet, elected after Piñera’s first term, by contrast, agreed to a friendly settlement agreement of our marriage case that obligated Chile to implement marriage equality legislation (among several other needed reforms). When Bachelet posed for a photo with me and the agreement I had signed with her government, I thought our work was nearly done. 
Yet her government was unable to pass marriage equality legislation. Sebastian Piñera returned to the presidency to succeed her. Rather than “implement”, his interior minister, Andrés Chadwick, was caught on tape stating in 2018 that Piñera “would exercise all the powers given by the Constitution… to impede that [same sex marriage] becomes law.”  In response, we turned to the Inter-American Commission, accusing Chile of a breach of the settlement agreement. 
But Piñera himself showed more signs of progress. He embraced the rights of trans people, and made a big show of it, appearing on TV with the Chilean trans actress Daniela Vega who represented Chile when her 2018 film, Una Mujer Fantástica, won the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film.

While we were still sparring before the Inter-American Commission, Piñera shocked Chile and the world when in his 2021 Annual Message he declared the time had come for equal marriage. In December 2021, he signed the legislation, stating that the law “puts all love relationships between two people on an equal footing.” Just as Barack Obama had “evolved” on marriage equality, so had Pinera.
When the day came for the law to take effect it was, not ironically, the last day of his term: March 10, 2022. After attending the civil ceremony at a notary in their neighborhood, I joined the happy couple and just a few relatives and others at a small private breakfast at La Moneda. Piñera was gracious, offering the couple a classic wedding cake – but this one had a male couple standing on top of it.
He also presented the couple a wedding gift, a simple bowl made of copper, and his words left no dry eyes in the room. With evident pride and patriotism, he said this bowl was made of copper which comes from the soil of Chile—just like the couple’s parents, just like the couple, and now, just like their children, who would belong forever to Chile.  
From the liberation of the miners to the liberation of same sex couples and their families, from the copper mines to the copper bowl, Piñera extolled a national pride and patriotism. 
Real statesmen are few, especially those who reconsider their positions and evolve. Those actions set an important example that deserve our praise, whatever our past differences. 

The outpouring from all quarters in Chile after his tragic death in a helicopter accident shows that leaders who demonstrate pragmatism, national pride, and political bravery can unite their countries, including to honor them when they pass.

Hunter Carter is the co-chair of AF International focusing on Latin America. He is a trailblazer in human rights, fought against torture in Chile, championed marriage equality, and led multinational anti-corruption efforts. Hunter is an esteemed ethics leader, fluent in Spanish, and he is an active member of the Global Americans Board.

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