Chile: protesters light bonfires and clash with police despite cabinet reshuffle

https://www.theguardian.com on Tue 29 Oct 2019

Fresh upheaval erupts shortly after president Sebastían Piñera announces firing of hardline officials

A demonstrator tosses furniture into an improvised bonfire during an anti-government protest in Santiago. Photograph: Edgard Garrido/Reuters

Fresh street battles and fires have broken out in downtown Santiago just hours after Chile’s embattled president, Sebastían Piñera, fired hardline members of his cabinet in an attempt to defuse the country’s biggest political crisis since the return to democracy in 1990.

Bands of protesters lit bonfires along the central Alameda Avenue and clashed with riot police as clouds of teargas and smoke engulfed the centre of the city. In cities ranging from Antofagasta and Copiapo in the desert north to Osorno and Valdivia in the south, looting, fires and mayhem broke out during the afternoon and evening. Videos of bands of youth looting trucks on the nation’s primary north-south route circulated on social media while in Santiago the wail of sirens carried into the night.

Earlier on Monday, Piñera announced that the interior minister, Andres Chadwick – an outspoken supporter of Augusto Pinochet during the 1973-1990 regime – would be replaced by Gonzalo Blumel, a young civil engineer. Blumel immediately declared that “something has broken in our country” and called for a nationwide dialogue to heal the deep divisions.

The finance minister Felipe Larrain was replaced by Ignacio Briones, an economics professor.

“These have been very difficult days. We have lived between pain and hope,” said Piñera, whose approval ratings are nearing single digits. “Chile changed and the government also has to change to confront these new times and new challenges.”

But after more than a week of often violent unrest over economic inequality, few expected that the reshuffle would end the upheaval: even as the president spoke, fumes from tear gas rolled into courtyards of the presidential palace, as protesters outside called for Piñera to resign.

“More than a change of faces, we need a change of politics. The government ought to proceed with an ambitious social agenda that takes charge of the citizen’s demands,” said Alvaro Elizalde, the president of the Socialist party.

 Thick smoke engulfs a street as a shopping mall burns during an anti-government protest in Santiago, Chile, on Monday. Photograph: Henry Romero/Reuters

Fresh demonstrations have already been called for Tuesday, but in addition to public fury, Piñera now faces efforts by opposition lawmakers to charge him for violating the constitution and permitting human rights violations during the street protests which have left least 17 dead, and led to the arrest of more than 7,000 people.

On Monday, Piñera deplored the loss of lives and welcomed the arrival of a UN human rights team to Chile. “We have nothing to hide,” he said.

The new interior minister Blumel repeatedly welcomed human rights investigations, and also reached out to the hundreds of thousands of immigrants recently settled in Chile – in dramatic contrast from the hardline authoritarian rhetoric of his predecessor Chadwick.

Demonstrators react as fire rages during an anti-government protest in Santiago. Photograph: Henry Romero/Reuters

Social media streams have been full of images of security forces beating protesters after Piñera declared a state of emergency and deployed the army last week. Human rights groups on Monday demonstrated outside the supreme court and demanded stricter limits to the crowd control tactics used by security forces which thus far have led to more than 1,000 Chileans injured and more than 100 partially blinded after being shot in the eye.

Heraldo Munoz, the president of the progressive PPD party called on the new interior minister to investigate abuse allegations. “We hope to see an openness and real changes, not just staged scenes with applause,” he said.

In an open letter published on Monday, 150 Chilean law professors condemned serious human rights violations across the country.

“We demand that the right of protesters be respected,” said the letter, which called for “an active and responsible dialogue, in good faith, to create pathways to solutions”.

Police commanders have noted that hundreds of police officers were also injured – including those burned by Molotov cocktails thrown by protesters. Outnumbered officers have been unable to stop mass looting and vandalism which has left more than 100 supermarkets in ruins, alongside numerous subway stations, pharmacies and banks.

Despite the widespread fury with Piñera, Chile’s progressive opposition has failed to harvest political capital from the crisis, said Pablo Zeballos, the founder of iTask consulting, a Latin American risk analysis firm with headquarters in Chile.

“For the people who are marching, the entire political class from right to left is guilty. They are seen as the ones with all the privileges. Thus, they are invalid,” he said.

“The challenge for the government will be to maintain ‘normalcy’ in the next few days, to advance with a new social contract and a political solution,” said Zeballos. “These massive marches create a unification of those who feel rejected and the time to find a political solution is closing.”

• This article was amended on 30 October 2019. In an earlier version we incorrectly said Gonzalo Blumel was a lawyer.