Chilean President Sebastian Pinera on Saturday (October 26) 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 the massive protests that were sparked by a rise in subway 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.
At least 19 people have died in the worst political violence in decades, and there has been widespread looting and arson.
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 in the current cabinet is Interior Minister Andres Chadwick, the president’s cousin.
The police and army troops have been accused of using unnecessary force in putting down the protests. The United Nations is sending a team to investigate allegations of abuse.
More than one million people, representing a range of political backgrounds and from all social classes, took to the streets of Santiago and other cities on Friday in some of the largest protests ever seen in this country of 18 million.
Demonstrators carrying indigenous and national flags sang popular resistance songs from the 1973-90 Augusto Pinochet dictatorship era.
Santiago’s governor Karla Rubilar praised the march, saying it represented “the dream of a new Chile.” Police said 820,000 people marched in the capital.
For the past week, pent-up anger has erupted over a socio-economic structure that many feel has left them by the wayside, with low wages and pensions, costly health care and education, and a big gap between rich and poor.
The protester’s demands now includes not only better social benefits but also the scrapping and replacing of the nation’s Constitution, which dates from the Pinochet dictatorship.
Pinera apologized earlier in the week for failing to anticipate the outbreak of social unrest, and he 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 in the subway fare increase.
He called on legislators to “urgently approve these projects rather than arguing and debating so much.” Pinera, a 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.”
Francisco Anguitar, a 38-year-old software developer attending the demonstrations Friday, told AFP, “Were asking for justice, honesty, ethical government. Its not that we want socialism or communism.”
In an initial burst of violence, metro stations were destroyed, supermarkets torched and looted, traffic lights and bus shelters smashed, and countless street barricades erected and set alight.
The national human rights institute INDH said 584 people have been injured and 2,410 detained during the protests.
Authorities deployed some 20,000 police and soldiers in Santiago, using tear gas and water cannons to disperse demonstrators.
Soldiers have been guarding Santiago’s metro stations as three of the seven lines – which usually carry three million people per day – have reopened.
Despite a recent decrease in serious incidents and arrests, the violence has been the worst since Chile returned to democracy after the Pinochet dictatorship.
The movement still lacks recognizable leaders and was mostly roused through social media, which analysts say makes it harder for the government to negotiate any resolution.
The government said on Thursday that next month’s APEC trade summit in Santiago would go ahead despite the protests.
US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping are among those expected to attend the November 16-17 meeting.