Chile bids final farewell to former President Pinera in state funeral

Sebastian Pinera died on Tuesday in a helicopter crash in southern Chile.

Members of the Presidential Escort Regiment transport the coffin of Chile's late former President Sebastian Pinera into the Metropolitan Cathedral in Santiago [Javier Torres/AFP]

A state funeral for Chile’s former President Sebastian Pinera who died after the helicopter he was piloting crashed into a lake, has taken place in the capital Santiago.

“Today, we share the shock of the tragic departure of a man, a father, husband, grandfather and public figure that was a leader in our transition to democracy,” President Gabriel Boric said during the ceremony at the country’s former Congress on Friday.

Pinera died on Tuesday at the age of 74 and state funeral services began on Wednesday in the capital with a private viewing before opening up to the public.

On Friday, a military band in red conical hats played as Pinera’s coffin, draped in the Chilean flag, was escorted to a cathedral in Santiago by guards on horseback for his funeral mass.

He will later be buried in a private family ceremony attended by his widow, four children and grandchildren.

A conservative billionaire first elected from 2010 to 2014, Pinera oversaw times of strong economic growth, but also continued protests. Boric himself was a student protest leader during Pinera’s first term, demanding education reforms.

“These days some have remembered we were political adversaries. It’s true,” left-wing Boric said, adding that the two were able to reach compromise and even spoke the day before his death to discuss the recent deadly wildfires that killed 131 people in central Chile.

‘Unify in memory’

Reporting from Santiago, Al Jazeera’s Lucia Newman said large crowds of people had gathered since the early hours of Friday morning to pay their last respects to the former president.

“This has been a very emotional funeral. Not only because the former president left office two years ago but also because of the way he perished in such a dramatic and unexpected way. So people are showing their respect not only for the former president but also for the man he was,” she said.

Pinera also oversaw the rescue of 33 miners who were trapped underneath the Atacama desert. The event became a global media sensation and was the subject of a 2014 movie, The 33.

Newman said that some of the 33 Chilean miners who were rescued in the audacious gamble that Pinera took, were also present at the funeral.

One of the miners, Juan Carlos Aguilar, remembered the excitement after hearing the former president when they first made contact.

“Imagine you’re hearing the president say, ‘We will search for you as if you were our children.’ I will never forget that,” Aguilar told the Reuters news agency.

During Pinera’s second term from 2018-2022, large-scale, often violent protests against inequality erupted in 2019 and ended with promises to draft a new constitution. Pinera also oversaw the country’s pandemic response.

“He [Pinera] was severely criticised in part because of his business dealings and due to human rights violations that took place during his term in 2019 … But today, members of the church are asking all Chileans to work together and unify in memory of the former president,” Newman said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies