In 2001 Flores was elected senator for the Tarapacá region, in Chile’s far north, as a member of the center-left Party for Democracy (PPD), a constituent party of the governing coalition Concertación. This center-left coalition had been Chile’s majority party since the country’s transition to democracy was declared on September 11, 1980.
Flores had returned to Chile as a hero of the left and most often voted with the more liberal faction of the PPD, but he also reached out to members of the right wing, including former Pinochetistas. This was a noteworthy move in a country still riven by hatreds born of the coup, where politicians often painted their opponents as unreconstructed fascists or Communists. But Flores argued that for Chile to move forward, it had to move beyond the divisions of 1973. “I wanted to reinvent the political reality,” he says.
He soon became known as a voice of political reform, denouncing corruption in both the government and his own party. Thereafter, the Chilean media vilified him as a provocateur, his former ardent supporters on the left shunned him, and his opponents on the right ignored his overtures. With his penchant for barbed comments and zero patience for reporters’ loaded questions, Flores may also have hurt his own cause. A notorious video shows him tearing off his microphone and stomping off camera while declaring a TV interview “over,” after the commentator continued to press a line of inquiry not to his liking.
Frustrated by the paralysis and posturing of the Senate, Flores broke with the Concertación party in 2006, citing its corruption. He sought to build a base as a social activist, launching and funding independent foundations dedicated to expunging crony capitalism in government while advancing entrepreneurialism and technology. He built a private K–12 school in Chile, which now has 2,000 students, to employ his management concepts in an education arena. In some efforts, he found support from the center right.
“He transmits no hate, no animosity from things of the past,” says Andres Allamand, a fellow senator who was the founder of Renovación Nacional, an opposition party, and in his teens, an ardent supporter of Pinochet. “He’s now a key element for what is going to be a new alliance in Chilean politics.”
In January 2007, Flores launched a new political project called Chile Primero (“Chile Comes First”); at that time, he was expected to run for the presidency in 2010. But in March 2009 he announced that he would not run, nor would he seek reelection to the Senate. Instead, he threw his support behind Sebastian Pinera, a billionaire businessman — Pinera had pioneered the use of credit cards in Chile — who is running for the second time as the candidate of the center-right Coalition for Change. (The election will take place in December 2009.)
For Flores, the endorsement was a matter of simple pragmatism. He considered Pinera a capable manager who embraced many of his key initiatives. But for some former supporters and colleagues on the left, it was an act of betrayal. Their denunciations of Flores featured heavily in Santiago’s daily news accounts, along with accusations that Pinera had benefited from secret associations with Pinochet.
“This was just the typical political bullshit,” says Flores. “Politicians have a bad reputation, and they are assessed in a very mean way,” he says. “It’s not good for business. It’s not good for being a public individual. At the same time, I do not want to be involved in perpetuating division in this country. We need to learn from the U.S., Germany, Japan; they were doing business together five years after they were in a brutal war.”