Chilean president vows major reshuffle after week of protests

Paula Bustamante, Giovanna Fleitas
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Chilean President Sebastian Pinera addresses the nation on October 26, 2019, as tensions ease in Santiago

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera addresses the nation on October 26, 2019, as tensions ease in Santiago (AFP Photo/Pedro Lopez)

Santiago (AFP) - Chilean President Sebastian Pinera on Saturday announced a major government reshuffle, a day after more than one million people took to the streets in a massive protest for economic and political change.

"I asked all ministers to resign in order to form a new government and to be able to respond to these new demands," he said in an address to the nation, adding that a highly controversial state of emergency might be lifted Sunday if "circumstances permit."

The military also announced that an overnight curfew would be lifted Saturday.

"We are in a new reality," Pinera said. "Chile is different from what it was a week ago."

The government has been struggling to craft an effective response to deadly protests that were sparked by a rise in metro fares but fueled by a growing list of economic and political demands that include Pinera's resignation.

The breadth and ferocity of the demonstrations appear to have caught the government of Chile -- long one of Latin America's richest and most stable countries -- off guard.

- Another reshuffling -

For the past week, pent-up anger erupted in demonstrations over a socio-economic structure that many feel has left them by the wayside.

On Saturday afternoon, however, the military presence in the capital was visibly reduced, even as a hundred protesters gathered in front of the presidential palace before being dispersed by water cannon.

Across the capital and elsewhere in the country, demonstrations materialized only sporadically, just one day after the mega-protests of more than a million people.

Five of Santiago's seven metro lines -- which usually carry three million people per day -- are now partially operating, and 98 percent of buses were functional. Shops had reopened.

A thousand volunteers gathered downtown to clear protest debris and scrub walls covered in slogans such as "Chile woke up" and "Pinera resign."

Pinera, who assumed office in March 2018, had already shuffled his cabinet twice in 15 months as doubts grew about a slowing economy and his leadership.

One of the most controversial members of the current cabinet is Interior Minister Andres Chadwick, the president's cousin.

Eric Silva, a professor of biology, said Pinera had to implement the latest shuffle because he is "trapped."

"It will be helpful but it's not how they are going to solve the problems," he said.

The protesters' demands now also include scrapping and replacing the nation's Constitution, which dates from the 1973-90 Augusto Pinochet dictatorship.

- Strong political violence -

The more than one million people who took to the streets of Santiago and other cities on Friday represented a range of political backgrounds and hailed from all social classes.

The protests represented some of the largest demonstrations ever seen in the country of 18 million, and police said 820,000 people marched in the capital alone.

The week of unrest began with an initial burst of violence as protesters and looters destroyed metro stations, torched supermarkets, smashed traffic lights and bus shelters, and erected burning street barricades. Looting and arson have been widespread.

At least 19 people died in the worst political violence since Chile returned to democracy after the Pinochet dictatorship.

Authorities deployed some 20,000 police and soldiers in Santiago, using tear gas and water cannon to disperse demonstrators.

Security forces have been accused of using unnecessary force in putting down the protests. The United Nations is sending a team to investigate allegations of abuse.

The national human rights institute INDH, meanwhile, said 584 people have been wounded and 2,410 detained.

- 'Heard the message' -

Pinera apologized earlier in the week for failing to anticipate the social unrest and announced a raft of measures designed to placate people, such as increases in minimum pensions and wages, higher taxes on the wealthy, and a rollback on the metro fare increase.

The conservative billionaire said Friday on Twitter that "we have all heard the message. We have all changed. With unity and help from God, we will travel the road towards a Chile that is better for all."

However the protest movement lacks recognizable leaders and was mostly roused through social media, which analysts say makes it harder for the government to negotiate any resolution.