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Miners' rescue boosts images of Chile and its president

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 nation closer to the developed status it deeply covets.

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 chief executive, Pinera delegated and then got out of the way, visiting the rescue effort only a few times before the triumphant finale.

Pinera's handling of the timeline was particularly artful. Soon after the miners were discovered alive on Aug. 22, Pinera and top rescue officials repeatedly said it would take up to four months to drill deep enough to reach the men.

The lengthy timeline never squared with experts' shorter estimates. However, the strategy allowed Pinera to avoid unmet expectations and overdeliver in a huge way.

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 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.

"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.

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