Popular public face of Chile’s mining rescue
SANTIAGO — The rescue of the 33 miners in Chile’s Atacama Desert last year catapulted Laurence Golborne from relative obscurity to worldwide renown. As mining minister, he was the public face of the remarkable operation. He spent days at the San José mine, comforting the miners’ families during their ordeal and relaying information to them about their relatives below ground.
With his easy-going manner, fluent English and film-star looks, he became a media celebrity. Before the accident, one poll showed that Golborne was the least-known member of the Chilean cabinet: Only 16 percent of the people knew who he was. By the time the miners had been hauled from the ground three months later, that figure had jumped to 87 percent.
The months since then have been difficult for the Chilean government, but Golborne’s approval rating has remained high. A poll published in August, for example, showed that Chileans regard him as the most important figure in the ruling coalition, aside from President Sebastian Piñera himself. Golborne’s approval rating is 71 percent, way above that of anyone else in government.
As a result, many observers view Golborne as a potential presidential candidate for elections due in late 2013. But he insists he is not interested. “I have never in my life suggested that I could be or have the intention of being president of the Republic, or of putting myself forward as a candidate,” he tells Latin Trade in an interview. “I came into the government of President Piñera to cooperate, to build a good government and to add my grain of sand in service to my country. But I’m not aiming for more than that.”
Asked if he might change his mind nearer the election, Golborne says: “Life takes many turns, and you can’t be sure of anything, but I have no aspirations to be president, and that’s the truth.”
Unlike most of his fellow cabinet members, Golborne comes from a humble, middle-class family. The youngest of six siblings, he grew up in the Santiago suburb of Maipú, the son of an iron-monger. In the 1970s, he experienced firsthand the political strife that ripped Chile apart and culminated in the 1973 coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power. Golborne’s sister was a Communist who had to hastily burn her Marxist literature after the coup, and his brother was a right-wing extremist with ties to the paramilitary group Patria y Libertad (Fatherland and Freedom).
Golborne considers himself lucky to have come from such a discordant background. “It teaches you how to live with different points of view. I think that as a result I have a very well-developed sense of tolerance. I’m open to different ideas,” he says.
After studying civil engineering at Santiago’s prestigious Pontifical Catholic University, Golborne moved to the United States, where he studied business administration at Northwestern and Stanford universities. He returned to Chile and forged a successful career in the private sector, most notably between 2001 and 2009 at retail conglomerate Cencosud, where he rose to the post of CEO. During his reign, the group expanded into Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Colombia. On the basis of that business acumen, Golborne was given the job of mining minister when Piñera named his first cabinet in March 2010.
In January this year, Golborne’s brief was expanded to include the energy ministry, in recognition of his successful handling of the miners’ rescue. Then, in July, he was moved to the Ministry of Public Works as part of a cabinet reshuffle.
When Golborne talks about his time at the mining ministry, he tends to play down the San José saga, even though it captured the world’s imagination. He likes to highlight his other achievements.
“It was a very fruitful year,” he recalls. “We brought in new legislation to increase mining royalties, a move that generated a lot of extra income for the country. We passed a law on closing disused mines in a bid to protect the environment. We dealt with the complex situation at the San José mine, but, more than that, we changed everything to do with mine safety.”
Golborne was the architect of a draft law on mine safety that is currently before the Chilean congress. The government describes it as “the biggest legislative step forward in the mining sector in 30 years.”
The minister says the number of inspectors at Chilean mines has doubled since the San José accident, and the number of fatalities has halved, although he accepts that there still is work to do. But now his focus is on public works and on overseeing reconstruction following the massive earthquake that hit Chile in February 2010. It is the sort of job that should suit him down to the ground.
“The mining ministry is tremendously important for the country, but it’s very small in terms of the direct impact it has on people’s lives,” Golborne says. “The ministry of public works, in contrast, has a huge impact on people’s lives, through the construction of roads and the provision of drinking water in rural areas, for example.”
When he is not at work, Golborne, 50, spends as much time as he can with his six children, the fruit of two marriages. He also plays guitar, although he says he finds little time to practice these days.
Filed Under: BRAVO 2011
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