President of Chile savours a touch of Churchill magic

Sebastian Piñera visits Cabinet War Rooms ahead of appointments today with David Cameron and the Queen
Click to follow
The Independent US

Basking in the glory of the miners' rescue, Chile's President, Sebastian Piñera, started a state visit to Britain yesterday with a tour of Sir Winston Churchill's underground, Second World War headquarters.

In the Churchill War Rooms in Whitehall, London, where the prime minister orchestrated the war effort and rallied the public during the Blitz, Mr Piñera refrained from uttering the words "blood, toil, tears and sweat" from his boyhood hero's 1940 speech, which he had kept at his side during the miners' ordeal.

Instead, he sat in Churchill's wooden chair and pulled from a suit pocket a small hessian sack containing a lump of rock taken from the San Jose mine, from which 33 miners were freed last week after 69 days below ground. He also offered as a gift to the War Rooms' director, Phil Reed, a facsimile of the first, red-lettered note from Los 33 saying "Estamos Bien en el refugio, los 33" ("We are doing well in our refuge, the 33.")

Overseen by Mr Piñera in a 22-hour operation, at the end of which he hugged every miner as they emerged from the emergency chute bored 622 metres under the Atacama desert, the extraordinary rescue has lifted his poll ratings and Chile's international standing, providing the ideal springboard for his long-planned tour of Europe.

A billionaire businessman, the Harvard-educated economist is hoping that his visit will underline Chile's transition from an insular dictatorship to a democratic economic power – and attract inward investment. He is also hoping to banish any lingering memories of Augusto Pinochet, the last Chilean head of state to make headlines in the UK during his arrest 12 years ago for murdering civilians during the 1970s.

Mr Piñera has said he will give the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the Queen – whom he will meet today in Downing Street and Buckingham Palace, respectively – fragments of the mine in bags bearing the legend: "In your hands are rocks from the depths of the earth and the spirit of 33 Chilean miners".

Tomorrow he will meet the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and on Thursday the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel; he has promised to give them some mine rocks too.

Prior to those engagements, the President, Chile's first elected right-wing leader in 52 years, chose to spend his first full day in London visiting the Churchill War Rooms, having been a life-long admirer of the Conservative prime minister.

The 60-year-old, who said he was currently re-reading Churchill's six-volume history, The Second World War, was shown the Cabinet Room, the Map Room, the Churchill Room (his private quarters), and the Churchill Museum. He also met Churchill's grand-daughter, Celia Sandys, 67. The President gave Mr Reed, who showed him around the War Rooms, the hessian sack containing a two-inch lump of brown rock "with sparkly bits" and unidentified "bits of blue". In return, Mr Reed gave the President a book of Churchill's quotations.

As he arrived at Heathrow airport on Saturday, Mr Piñera, whose $2.2bn fortune was made from credit cards, aviation and television stations, had some stirring words of his own. He said: "Chile has given a good example of what is the real meaning of commitment, courage, faith, hope and unity. We did it because we were united. We did it because we were convinced. We did it because we would never leave anyone behind, which is a good principle for Chile and for the world."