THE SATURDAY PROFILE
On a Mission to Help Chile Until the Very End
Published: September 23, 2011
SÃO PAULO, Brazil
Desafío Levantemos Chile
THREE days after an earthquake and tsunami rattled Chile last year, Felipe Cubillos borrowed a friend’s helicopter and flew over the devastated coast.
“I saw everything destroyed, the chaos, the absence of the state, the desolation, the sadness, tremendous confusion,” he said.
Mr. Cubillos said he also saw his calling. Tapping his contacts around the world from years in business, he formed an organization and immediately began aiding the reconstruction. The first project, completed 20 days after the tsunami, was to build a school for 150 children in Iloca. Over the next 40 days, the organization built 17 more schools. Preschools and low-income houses followed, as did assistance to fishermen to repair their boats. By March of this year, it was helping small businesses start over.
“The poor in Chile need three things: capital, training and contacts,” Mr. Cubillos said. “We try to serve as a bridge between the people who need help and the people who can provide it.”
As tragic as it was, the quake “opened a window of opportunity” to help less fortunate Chileans. He saw it as the beginning of a special phase of his life.
On Sept. 2, he and 20 others boarded a Chilean air force plane bound for Robinson Crusoe Island, 420 miles from the coast, where his organization was helping to rebuild one of the areas most affected by the wave. He was traveling with other volunteers and a television crew, on the way to inaugurate a new home for tsunami survivors and businesses on the island.
Amid fierce winds, the plane failed twice to land and crashed. The authorities said there were no survivors.
Mr. Cubillos was a rare species in Chile, said officials and people who worked with him: a highly successful businessman with a social conscience.
“He is an extraordinary person, the private citizen who has done the most for reconstruction,” Rodrigo Pérez, Chile’s Housing Minister, said after the plane went down.
Born in the capital, Santiago, Mr. Cubillos, 49, was one of four children of Hernán Cubillos, who served as foreign minister to the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The elder Mr. Cubillos actively conspired with Navy officers to oust former President Salvador Allende in 1973.
HE was Pinochet’s first civilian foreign minister, serving from 1978 to 1980. He oversaw negotiations over the Beagle Channel, talks that eventually avoided a military confrontation with Argentina at the last minute. But in 1980, Pinochet and his delegation were forced to return to Chile while in mid-flight to the Philippines when that country’s leader, Ferdinand Marcos, suddenly canceled the visit for unexplained reasons. Pinochet blamed the elder Mr. Cubillos for the humiliating retreat and ousted him from his cabinet.
The former minister returned to the business world, working for major beer and tobacco companies, investment firms and banks. He died in 2001.
His son, Felipe, studied law at the University of Chile and followed his father into the business world at a young age, joining the salmon industry just as it was taking off in Chile. At 25, he was a manager at Eicomar, a company that was one of the first to experiment in salmon cultivation.
He started a handful of businesses, including an Internet company, as well as boat repair and sea transport companies. He started a family, fathering a son and three daughters. But he still was not satisfied.
“I am drawn to the unknown, to uncertainty,” he said in an interview this year. “It’s tough for me to live with routine.”
Sailing was always a passion, and in 2008 he pursued a dream to sail around the world. To complete the Portimão Global Ocean Race, he got sponsors, sold one of his companies and went to France to build a sailboat.
He named the 40-foot boat the Cape Horn Challenge. After departing for his voyage from Portugal, he and a friend, José Muñoz, “lived in permanent crisis,” especially during the 30 days sailing from South Africa to New Zealand, 27 of which were under storm, he said. After passing Cape Horn, at the southernmost point of Chile, there were times when the boat’s electronics did not work.
The worst moment came near Puerto Rico, when one of the boat’s two rudders broke. “We were at risk of having to abandon the regatta,” he said. But they fixed the rudder two months later, in May 2009, and sailed on.
“ ‘Dad, how beautiful that you never give up,’ ” wrote his two daughters in an e-mail, he said. “That’s when I realized that the regatta around the world made sense for me,” Mr. Cubillos said. “I was setting an example for my children, so that they never give up.”
In the summer of 2009, after 142 days at sea, the two men sailed into Portugal, finishing second in the regatta. He called the journey “a life-changing” experience, “a trip towards the soul, in which you discover your essence, your limits, your own capabilities.”
THOSE lessons aided Mr. Cubillos in February 2010, when Chile suffered the quake. Before his death, the organization he started, Let’s Lift Up Chile Challenge, had about 60 people participating, with more young people joining every day.
“There is a lot of time still to think about challenges,” he said he told a young girl a motivational speech after the earthquake. “I am just beginning. There is a lot more to do.”
On Sept. 14, Mr. Cubillos’s family held a memorial ceremony in Algarrobo, a bay about 70 miles east of Santiago. It was there, at a nearby yacht club, where Mr. Cubillos had learned how to sail with his father — the same club where Mr. Cubillos’s father had conspired with Navy officers against Mr. Allende.
About 40 sailboats went out to sea and formed in a circle. His family members released Mr. Cubillos’s ashes from the remains recovered to the Pacific Ocean, as friends threw flowers into the sea from the sailboats.
That same day, President Sebastián Piñera introduced a bill in Congress. The “Cubillos law,” if passed, would speed up the awarding of tax benefits for corporate donations for reconstruction efforts.