The Chilean president’s right-hand man

Rodrigo Peñailillo has become Michelle Bachelet’s trusted aide and most powerful minister

Bachelet signs a presidential decree under the watchful gaze of Peñailillo.
Bachelet signs a presidential decree under the watchful gaze of Peñailillo.XIMENA NAVARRO

A Chilean opposition deputy questioned Interior Minister Rodrigo Peñailillo for nearly two hours last week in what the government views as a politically motivated move.

In Chile, government officials are required to give parliament a progress report on issues related to their duties. But lately, this procedure has been perverted and turned into a political exercise to unsettle the adversary.

But from the government's point of view, Thursday’s questioning turned against the opposition conservatives, with Peñailillo defending himself well and emerging stronger from the debate.

José Manuel Edwards was aiming his questions at the most influential cabinet member in the Michelle Bachelet administration, and the man opposition leaders hold responsible for handling the ongoing violence in Araucanía because he is the lead official for security matters in Chile.

Chileans had never heard Peñailillo speak before because he acted with a discretion that bordered on secrecy

The government feels that little can be expected of the minister yet since he only took office four months ago. The conflict in that indigenous region has been going on for decades.

Until last March, when Bachelet began her second term after Sebastián Piñera’s four years in power, no one had heard Peñailillo speak. The appointment of this commercial engineer as interior minister surprised Nueva Mayoría supporters, the Bachelet coalition that includes Christian Democrats and Communists.

Chile’s Socialist president wants to lay the foundation for equality through tax and education reforms. She has also decided to make generational changes in the country’s leadership. And Peñailillo symbolizes that effort. He is 40 years old and a trusted aide who served as chief of staff in her first administration (2006-2010). Now, he holds the most important ministerial office in Chile.

Chileans had never heard Peñailillo speak until now because during his four years with Bachelet he behaved as was expected of her circle of aides – with a discretion and caution bordering on secrecy. During those years, Peñailillo grew as a politician and earned Bachelet’s complete trust. This is no small feat given that the president is a distrustful leader who does not open her door to just anybody.

Peñailillo had more influence than any other chief of staff. Since Bachelet did not have a team of advisors, he took on consulting duties. Very soon, center-right leaders began to understand why this young engineer was on the rise.

Peñailillo has made it clear
that he is the authoritative
voice of the president

All of this became more evident between 2010 and 2013, when Bachelet left Chile to take a leadership position at UN Women in New York. As soon as her administration completed its term, Peñailillo left and went to study in Europe. First, he attempted to learn English while living in Brighton, England. Then he went to Madrid where he completed a master’s degree in political analysis at the city’s Complutense University with a scholarship from the Spanish government.

When he returned to Chile, Bachelet was still in New York but she was keeping quiet about whether she would run for reelection. Peñailillo became her ambassador to Santiago, holding meetings in her name. He spoke on her behalf without saying so and was aware of all the conflicts in which she was involved, including a trial concerning officials’ failure to alert residents prior to the February 2010 seaquake that caused hundreds of deaths. In short, he paved the way for The Boss, as he calls her, acting as one of the leading minds behind her political platform for reelection.

Peñailillo comes from a modest household in southern Chile. His mother was a widow and he was the youngest of four children. He studied at a public school in the town of Cabrero where his family had the only home built out of concrete. He then continued his studies in Coronel where, at age 15, he became a member of Partido por la Democracia (PPD), the instrumental party that former president Ricardo Lagos founded. He served as president of the student federation at Biobío University before moving to Santiago to embark on a political career.

They say he still lives in his quiet apartment in Ñuñoa, a middle-class neighborhood in the capital

After holding a few low-level positions in the state apparatus, he was named governor of Arauco in 2000. And he began to shine among the political elite of his party’s coalition. This was the springboard that helped him become the first officer in Bachelet’s 2005 campaign – a post that opened the doors to everything else that followed.

They say he still lives in his quiet apartment in Ñuñoa, a middle-class neighborhood in the capital, with his wife Carolina and two daughters. Until recently, Peñailillo still attended the neighborhood’s English academy.

The minister has made significant achievements in the first four months of this administration, including his successful handling of negotiations with the opposition to change the binomial electoral system. He carried himself well during the disastrous earthquake in the north in early April and during the wildfires that suffocated the port city of Valparaíso. He made an effort to present himself as a proactive man in his statements before the press – something his own government criticized in private. Still, he has made it clear that he is the authoritative voice of the president.

Last Sunday, Minister of Education Nicolás Eyzaguirre said in an interview that the state would only pay for the first four years of university for each citizen. Less than 12 hours later, Peñailillo publicly corrected him, saying the government plans to guarantee free universal education. That statement was a show of power.

Peñailillo is the government’s most powerful minister and has managed to make a name for himself in a short time. According to Adimark, his approval rating is 60 percent and he is the fourth best-prepared member of the cabinet. Before him are Eyzaguirre, Minister Secretary-General of the Presidency Ximena Rincón, and Justice Minister José Antonio Gómez. All of them have presidential ambitions.

The 2017 race has begun early and in an underhand manner. Although Peñailillo himself does not say so explicitly, the government has indicated that his candidacy cannot be ruled out. And he will certainly find a great ally in the president. 

Translation: Dyane Jean François

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