Affairs

Politics

A hole new world for the miners’ hero— San José mine

Preface

With the world’s eyes on Chile’s rescue of 33 trapped miners, one person has emerged as an unexpected winner: mining minister Laurence Golborne.

Chilean miners

13 October 2010

With the world’s eyes on Chile’s rescue of 33 trapped miners, one person has emerged as an unexpected winner: mining minister Laurence Golborne, whose work as the public face of the rescue effort has quickly made him the country’s most popular political figure and a possible presidential candidate.

The public affection for Golborne popped up from nowhere. In July, a monthly poll testing ministers’ popularity found him to have the lowest name recognition in President Sebastian Piñera’s cabinet. He was familiar to the financial world from his years running the country’s biggest retailer, the Cencosud conglomerate of big box stores, supermarkets and consumer finance. But he was invisible to the general public: only 14 per cent of Chileans knew his name.

Now there is barely a Chilean who doesn’t know him and most seem to like what they see: he has an 87 per cent approval rating, according to pollsters Adimark GfK, the highest marks an individual has received since the survey began in 2006.

Education minister Joaquín Lavín, a presidential candidate in 1999 and 2005 with all but universal name recognition in Chile, told a local daily that he’d hand over the task of campaigning to his colleague in mining. “There’s another minister who’s very popular,” he said. “Leave it to him.”

When Golborne first appeared at the San José mine site, he looked uncomfortable, his voice cracking under the stress. On Twitter, with far fewer than his current 54,000 followers, he fended off criticism of the rescue effort, responding directly to one tweet after another, a habit he has kept up. Golborne spent many nights with the miners’ families, with a policy of explaining everything – including rescue plans – to the relatives before speaking to the press.

Today, Golborne is a model in the under-promise/over-deliver leadership style. He routinely offers cautious timelines and then beats them – a common practice on Wall Street, less so in government. He bats away questions about how he is doing personally: “I think how I feel is not important,” he told reporters days ago. He refuses to speculate on his future. He has also declined, so far, to join a political party.

The mine rescue will be a tough act to follow. Golborne is already facing quiet questions about who is going to pay for the mammoth effort. And the problem of mine safety isn’t going to disappear – official numbers say 33 miners have died on the job in Chile this year; union leaders say many more deaths go uncounted.

When the parades are over and Golborne returns to Santiago, it will be harder than ever for him to over-deliver. His success at organising the rescue effort has built up expectations that he can do anything – but politics may be tougher than 700 metres of bedrock.

Monocle 24

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