* Quake aftershocks jolt capital and Congress building
* Swearing-in ceremony austere as country mourns
* High hopes for businessman Pinera to boost economy
* Outgoing President Bachelet leaves with high popularity
(Updates with Pinera quotes, changes dateline pvs SANTIAGO)
By Javier Lopez
CONSTITUCION, Chile, March 11 The ground shook
and buildings swayed as billionaire Sebastian Pinera took over
as Chile's president on Thursday, tasked with rebuilding after
a massive earthquake killed hundreds just 12 days ago.
A series of strong aftershocks rattled central Chile
minutes before conservative Pinera was sworn in at Congress in
the port city of Valparaiso, as Latin American presidents and
other dignitaries looked nervously at the ceiling.
Workers in the capital briefly evacuated swaying office
towers and took refuge in the streets.
Thursday's aftershocks were an unsettling reminder of the
earthquake that killed nearly 500 people and damaged
infrastructure across much of south-central Chile, threatening
Pinera's election pledges to boost economic growth to 6 percent
a year and to create a million jobs.
In Constitucion, heavily damaged in the 8.8-magnitude quake
on Feb 27, residents scrambled for the hills on Thursday after
the navy issued a tsunami alert, but it was later called off.
Pinera rushed off to the quake zone after swearing in,
leaving behind the presidents who attended his inauguration.
"I felt that my duty was to be here in Constitucion," he
said, dressed in a red zip-up-jacket, in the coastal city known
for its fishing and forestry industry.
The new president has ordered his interior minister to
personally oversee the recovery work of state emergency office
Onemi, heavily criticized for its handling of the earthquake
and ensuing tsunamis that devastated coastal villages.
Take a Look on Chile earthquake [ID:nCHILE]
Chileans hope that Pinera, a Harvard-trained economist, can
use his business acumen to help one of Latin America's most
stable economies rebound from the devastating earthquake.
"The main challenge is to identify priorities to swiftly
start the reconstruction effort. That will be the key variable
that will be evaluated during his administration," said Alberto
Ramos, senior economist with Goldman Sachs in New York.
"This could be the Katrina of President Pinera ... in terms
of how the population perceives the relief and reconstruction
effort," he said, referring to the powerful hurricane that
struck New Orleans in 2005. The slow relief effort damaged U.S.
President George W. Bush's popularity.
While mines were mostly unscathed in the world's top copper
producer, the February quake seriously damaged Chile's key
wine, fish and paper pulp industries.
Some analysts see the damage shaving 0.5 to 2.0 percentage
points off this year's economic growth, while others are
holding to their original GDP forecasts of around 5 percent.
State-owned copper company Codelco, the world's biggest
copper miner, said none of its mines were damaged in Thursday's
aftershocks. [ID:nN11225868] One, a powerful magnitude 6.9
about 124 km (80 miles) south-west of the capital, was nearly
as powerful as the quake that devastated Haiti in January.
Pinera, a 60-year-old former senator who made a fortune on
a credit cards business and an airline, ranks No. 437 on
Forbes' richest list, which estimates his fortune at $2.2
To fund reconstruction, the new leader is likely to issue
international bonds and dip into the country's copper savings.
Survivors are praying that he gets it right.
"He is a businessman ... and that is what we need right
now. Someone who can create jobs for our kids," said Carlos
Fuentes, a 47-year-old fisherman who lost his home and boat
when giant waves rolled over the town of Curanipe after the
quake twelve days ago.
Pinera has announced a program to provide 4 million of the
neediest families with 40,000 Chilean pesos ($77) this month.
The continued rumbling has frayed nerves, particularly in
hard hit Constitucion and Rancagua, shaken hard by Thursday's
After initial reports of significant damage on Thursday,
emergency officials later said there were no reports of
damages, injuries or fatalities.
"Now I'm nervous!" said Delfina Fuentes, 60, on a nearby
hilltop on Thursday after abandoning her home in Constitucion,
which was damaged by the February quake.
The handover of power from popular center-leftist Michelle
Bachelet was celebrated with an austere midday ceremony, toned
down out of respect for the dead.
Pinera joins a small group of conservative leaders in Latin
America, where most presidents are leftists or center-leftists.
He is the first conservative leader in Chile after two decades
of center-left rule that has consolidated the country's status
as the most developed country in Latin America.
Bachelet, a pediatrician-turned-politician, left office
with a record 84 percent approval rating even after criticism
of delays in government aid for victims. [ID:nN09100432]
Her government was also slammed for a faulty tsunami
warning system, botched death toll estimates and hesitating to
send in troops to quell violent looting.
(With reporting by Alonso Soto in Curanipe, Fabian Cambero in
Valparaiso, Mica Rosenberg, Rodrigo Martinez and Simon Gardner
in Santiago; Writing by Brian Rhoads; Editing by Fiona Ortiz
and Kieran Murray)