Tens of thousands of workers and students marched through central Santiago to push President Sebastian Pinera for better labor and education conditions.
Clashes broke out at the end of the demonstration, with police using water cannons and tear gas to disperse crowds. Protestors had earlier attempted to subdue groups of masked youths who threw rocks and lit fires, television images showed.
Students, teachers and unionized workers marched down the main road in the downtown area as part of a 48-hour protest organized by the Central Workers Union, some shouting slogans comparing Pinera with military dictator Augusto Pinochet. Pinera has become the least popular president since democracy was restored in 1990 even as the top copper-producing nation’s economy expands at the fastest pace in a decade.
“The politicians are disoriented and don’t know how to deal with these social protests,” Leonardo Cavieres, a high school teacher, said during the march today. “Our main goal is to change this neoliberal capitalism. We’re not just fighting for student rights, but those of the workers as well.”
Demonstrators in Plaza Italia played drums, danced and posed for pictures alongside a protester dressed like Captain Jack Sparrow from the movie Pirates of the Caribbean.
Most employees ignored the call to strike, Labor Minister Evelyn Matthei told reporters at the presidential palace today. The Santiago public transport system is operating normally, Deputy Interior Minister Rodrigo Ubilla told state-owned television channel TVN. International flights weren’t affected, according to the Santiago airports website.
“I am working actively trying to resolve problems but the way to do it is constructively via dialogue,” Matthei said. “There are problems in education and in labor and many problems that come from the past.”
More than 300 people were arrested yesterday, the first day of the demonstrations. Six officers were wounded in Santiago as protesters set up roadblocks, torched cars and looted shops after failing to impede public transport during business hours, Ubilla said. Chilevision showed images of a masked man firing a shotgun at police last night.
Matthei said the CUT has rejected talks with the government while Ubilla described yesterday’s labor strike “a great failure.”
“This is a right-wing government that has demonized social demonstrations,” Claudio Urrutia, director of CUT’s international department, said in an interview. “This government doesn’t seek dialogue. We have to change the tax regime in this country.”
Pinera, a Harvard-trained economist and billionaire investor, took office last year on the promise of speeding Chile’s entry into the developed world with growth averaging 6 percent annually, about double the pace of the previous administration.
The economy grew 8.4 percent in the first half, the fastest pace since 1995, as consumption surged and reconstruction after an earthquake in February, 2010 spurred investment.
Pinera is proposing $4 billion in new education spending financed, in part, through copper revenue that has boosted fiscal savings to $18 billion, or 9 percent of GDP, the highest level since 2009. Pinera’s approval slumped to 26 percent in a poll this month by Santiago-based CEP.
“It’s said there’s no money, which is a lie because the state has resources,” said Javier San Martin, a protester and university student. “That why it’s important to nationalize copper, which is our principal source of revenue. That would allow us to guarantee quality education for everyone.”
Melbourne-based BHP Billiton Ltd. and London-based Anglo American Plc operate mines in Chile. State-owned Codelco, which was created after former president Salvador Allende nationalized the copper industry in 1971, is the world’s largest producer of the metal.
Chile has the highest level of income inequality among member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The only South American participant of the organization, Chile has the third-highest poverty rate in the group after Mexico and Israel, according to an OECD report.
Workers with Codelco expressed their solidarity with the strike in an Aug. 22 statement, without committing to stop mine production. The demonstrations may be the biggest protest since the military government of Augusto Pinochet ended in 1990, labor unions said.
“This is an unnecessary and illegal strike,” Finance Minister Felipe Larrain said Aug. 23 at the Bloomberg Chile Economic Summit in Santiago. “It is unfortunate because through strikes and demonstrations we’re not going to develop Chile.”
The government estimates the national strike will cost the $200 billion economy about $200 million each day, Larrain said.
The government signed a wage agreement Aug. 23 with groups representing about 70,000 public health workers, or about 80 percent of the total, Larrain said.
People have reason enough to protest as long as they do so peacefully, Andres Velasco, who served as finance minister in the government of Michelle Bachelet, told reporters Aug. 23.
“There’s a general sense of unease in society,” Raul Gonzalez, a protester as well as economist and social scientist at the Christian Humanism Academic University in Santiago, said during the march. Chile is a “society that bottles things up inside and expresses itself at certain moments.”