October 23, 2019 / 12:47 PM / 22 days ago

Chile braces for more protests, strikes as Pinera's pleas fall on deaf ears

By Dave Sherwood and Natalia A. Ramos Miranda

SANTIAGO, Oct 23 (Reuters) - Chile braced for more protests and a general strike by state workers on Wednesday, despite President Sebastian Pinera’s pleas for forgiveness and announcement of ambitious reforms to quell unrest that has rocked the country and led to at least 15 deaths.

Workers at Chile’s state-owned Codelco, the world’s largest copper producer, said late on Tuesday they would join the general strike called by state unions, raising the specter of a slow-down in copper output from the world’s top producer.

Despite the announcement, Codelco’s Chuquicamata mine was operating normally early on Wednesday, according to internal documents viewed by Reuters.

“The strike will go on!” the Central Worker’s Trade Union (CUT) said on social media, calling on its workers to begin gathering mid-morning in the country’s cities for a peaceful “caserolazo”, in which protesters bang pots in solidarity.

Many student groups, heathcare workers, and teachers also planned to join the protests, leaving the majority of the country’s schools closed and many public services hobbled.

“We invite all to join...what we want is peace, but the only durable peace comes with social justice,” said CUT president Barbara Figueroa.

Pinera late on Tuesday said he hoped to turn recent violent protests, which have also seen some 5,000 people arrested, into an “opportunity” for Chile.

The reforms include a guaranteed minimum wage, a hike in the state pension and the stabilization of electricity costs.

The president said the package represented “concrete and urgent steps” to resolve inequality that has sent tens of thousands into the streets to demand an economic overhaul and, in some cases, his removal.

WEEKEND VIOLENCE

Pinera’s offer represented “an enormous victory for our citizens”, said socialist Oscar Landerretche, a former chairman of Codelco and touted presidential candidate for 2021.

“Chileans have managed to completely overhaul the government’s economic agenda,” he added.

Others, however, said it was still not enough. Daniel Nunez, of Chile’s Communist party, which did not take part in talks with Pinera’s administration, said the president’s proposals were insufficient.

“Pinera’s announcements are cosmetic, they won’t end the social protests,” Nunez said in a statement on Wednesday.

The president’s pledges came after the center-right Pinera, a billionaire businessman, was widely criticized for saying on Monday that Chile was “at war” with violent protesters, even as thousands of people held peaceful demonstrations demanding an end to low wages and a high cost of living.

At least 15 people have died in protests that started over a hike in public transport costs, prompting a weekend of riots, arson attacks and looting of businesses and the declaration of a state of emergency by Pinera over a large swath of Chile.

Pope Francis, originally from neighboring Argentina, said he was concerned over the protests in Chile at a general audience in St. Peter’s Square Tuesday.

“I hope that by ending the violent demonstrations, through dialogue, efforts are made to find solutions to the crisis,” Francis said.

The 69-year-old Pinera asked for forgiveness for successive governments of both left and right that failed to act sooner to stem deep inequalities in Latin America´s fifth-largest economy.

Viviana Ramos, a worker at a local health care center in Santiago, said she hoped for more from Pinera but understood there was a long road ahead.

“I don’t know if people will have the patience to keep waiting,” she said, adding that “But I understand these changes can’t all come at once.” (Reporting by Dave Sherwood; Additional reporting by Fabian Cambero, Aislinn Laing and Natalia Ramos; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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