By Anthony Esposito and Carlos Serrano
SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Harnessing the same energy that has galvanized millions of people to take to the streets in protest, a spectacle unseen since the bloody fight against a dictatorship three decades ago, Chileans have organized town halls to take the country’s future into their own hands.
Neighbors who had scarcely spoken to one another prior to the breakout of unrest two weeks ago are now engaged in a profound debate about the political path they want to carve out for their country. It is a scene playing out in neighborhoods across the country of 17 million.
“The first act of revolution is to get together with others because the system wants you alone, it wants you to be an individualist,” said Cristian Diaz, one of roughly 1,000 people who gathered on a balmy afternoon on Saturday in the Yungay neighborhood in central Santiago.
More than 10,000 people assembled at different town halls in the last week alone, according to the Social Unity Roundtable, a civil society umbrella organization that represents different student, workers, sexual rights and environmental groups.
The meetings seek to find resolutions to the profound inequalities that are driving unrest that has killed at least 23 and injured more than 2,000, with more than 7,000 arrested. The cost to the country is estimated at $3 billion in damages and lost earnings.
Polls have shown that the majority of people strongly support the protests, but not the damage to the country’s infrastructure, businesses and transport systems.
“This is incredible to see so many people in the plaza, united by the same cause, debating,” said Diaz. “It’s what we always wanted, what we always dreamed about, that people got to know each other, got to know their neighbor’s name.”
Using a loudspeaker, townhall organizer Pablo Selles directed people into the four corners of Yungay’s main square. Those residing in the southwestern part of the neighborhood were directed to that part of the square, and those in other sections to their own corresponding corners.
“What do we want to do and who do we want to do it with?” were questions Selles asked the groups to consider.
A focus of discussions was whether the 1980 constitution imposed during the 17-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet should be torn up and replaced with a new version.
Critics of the constitution complain that it fails to guarantee basic rights such as public healthcare, is not representative of modern Chile and does not promote a participatory democracy.
Opposition parties have backed calls for a new constitution but it is unclear whether they will attract broad political backing.
Others at the town hall said pressure should be kept on President Sebastian Pinera, whose approval ratings plummeted to just 13% according to the latest survey by pollster Cadem, to force changes to pension, education and healthcare systems they see as unfair.
He has announced a sweeping new social plan, axed a third of his cabinet and canceled two major global summits.
But the protests continue, and Pinera’s government now faces mounting allegations of human rights abuses, which are being investigated by a team sent by U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, a former Chilean president herself.
Chile’s Human Rights National Institute (INDH) is preparing legal complaints related to allegations of torture, sexual violence and deaths and the national prosecutor is investigating more than 800 accusations of rights abuses.
“We want a new constituent assembly, a new constitution and to impeach Pinera for crimes against humanity committed in recent days,” said Luis Torres, a computer engineer and physics professor.
At 58, Torres is quickly approaching the retirement eligibility age of 65, and the dire prospect faced by countless other Chileans of receiving a monthly pension that is a mere fraction of their salary.
“With two university degrees, I’m going to retire with 200,000 pesos ($270) per month. That’s why I’m pissed off… I make seven or eight times that,” said Torres.
That would put Torres precariously close to the poverty line of 163,000 pesos a month, as defined by the Social Development Ministry.
A hike in metro fares sparked the initial protests, laying bare long-simmering frustrations over high living costs and an uneven distribution of wealth.
A 53-year-old grandmother named Carena, who declined to give her last name, said at the age of 14 she participated in street protests against the Pinochet regime. She said her fight continues.
“We need to keep protesting, even if we die trying.”
(Reporting by Anthony Esposito and Carlos Serrano; Editing by Dan Grebler)