Harvard Alumnus Presides Over Chile During Mine Crisis

President of Chile Sebastián Piñera warmly embraced each of the 33 miners that were rescued this Wednesday, encouraging them to reunite with their families and leading them in singing the Chilean national anthem. The miners had survived 69 days in a collapsed mineshaft.

Piñera, who graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences with a doctorate in economics in 1976, has been praised both domestically and internationally for his leadership during the Chilean mine crisis, which ended this week.

Laurence J. Kotlikoff, an economics professor at Boston University and one of Piñera’s closest friends during his time at Harvard, said that the same qualities that have made him a successful leader were evident in Piñera when they first met 37 years ago.

The two became fast friends as soon as classes had started—albeit with a spirit of friendly competition. Kotlikoff remembered walking back after picking up their first exam; Piñera pointed out that Kotlikoff had gotten the highest score in the class while he had gotten the second highest and wondered simply, “‘How’d that happen?’”

“We were always being a little sarcastic with each other from the get-go,” Kotlikoff said. “He has a lot of fun kidding people around.”

But Kotlikoff also said that Piñera—who entered graduate school as a newlywed and left three years later with a Ph.D.—was a family man and a “brilliant” but humble student.

“[Other students] cared about being right,” Kotlikoff said. “He cared about finding the right answers.”

And even while studying in America, Piñera remained conscious of the political happenings in his country, according to Kotlikoff.

In 1973—the same year that Piñera began his doctoral studies at GSAS—the Chilean army general Augustín Pinochet staged a coup that overthrew the country’s democratically-elected president, Salvador Allende.

Piñera had “heated discussions with Chilean students in the Boston area,” Kotlikoff said. “He was very saddened by the whole situation.”

And though Kotlikoff said that Piñera was not always certain that he would pursue a career in public service, it was likely something that Piñera had considered.

“I think he was in many ways born for this job. He’s a good debater, but the main thing is he’s a great listener,” Kotlikoff said. “I wish he was running our country.”