September 1, 2014
Chileans strike against Piñera
Protesters barricaded roads and burned tires in parts of Chile's capital as a two-day national strike began against unpopular President Sebastian Piñera, but mining in the world's top copper producer was not disrupted.
The strike, called by Chile's main umbrella labor union CUT and coming on the heels of huge demonstrations by students demanding free education, got off to a slow start and the government said 95 percent of public workers ignored the call.
Protesters have clashed with police in recent weeks as hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to rail against conservative billionaire Piñera and demand greater trickle down of wealth spurred by a copper price boom.
Public transportation was running and banks were open. While some miners said they supported the strike, operations at some of the world's biggest copper mines were not affected. But pockets of protest erupted across the capital and in Chile's main cities.
Stone-throwing protesters clashed with police in full riot gear who responded with water cannon and tear gas in several Chilean cities, and police said dozens of protesters had been detained.
However, most of the protests were peaceful, with groups banging pots and pans in front of the Santiago municipality in a cacerolazo, a traditional form of protest in Latin America.
"In Cuba I can study for free, but in Chile..?" read one placard held aloft on a pedestrian avenue in downtown Santiago, as protesters waved Chilean red, white and blue flags, danced and blew whistles.
Protest demands went beyond educational change, ranging from calls for a new constitution to a revamped tax system to salary increases.
While previous governments have faced one-day national strikes, it was the first 48-hour national strike since the 1973-1990 Augusto Pinochet dictatorship.
"What is happening today is very similar to the first protests against the dictatorship," said Maria Eugenia Puelma, president of the Santiago public workers' association, who was protesting in the city center amid music and banners.
"The government has no been able to respond to the demands of social movements in Chile. It's time for a change in the constitution and better distribution of wealth."
Government spokesman Andres Chadwick said police defused some protests earlier on Wednesday, and that beyond traffic disruptions, the situation was "normal."
"We're all worried about the social climate," said Finance Minister Felipe Larrain, calling the strike illegal and a threat to the economy. He said the government would not tolerate roadblocks.
"We want to be able to push ahead with our programs. ... Government programs are not created in the street but at the polls." Larrain estimated the strike would cost Chile about $200 million a day.
Workers at some of the world's biggest copper mines have staged strikes of their own. Workers at BHP Billiton's Escondida, the world's No.1 copper mine, halted a two-week strike earlier this month that stoked global supply fears.
While Latin America's model economy is seen expanding 6.6 percent this year and is an investor magnet thanks to prudent fiscal and monetary policies, many ordinary Chileans feel they are not sharing in an economic miracle fueled by high copper prices.
Piñera, who took power a year and a half ago and appointed a Cabinet filled with technocrats, has alienated many Chileans with his policies.
He is the least popular leader in the two decades since the end of Pinochet's rule, according to a recent poll, and is less than halfway through his four-year term.
A major Cabinet reshuffle last month, the second since Pñnera took power, failed to quell unrest.
The slump in Piñera's support is seen hindering him in Congress, and delaying the passage of capital market reforms aimed at turning Chile into a financial hub to rival Brazil.