By Dave Sherwood
SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Chilean President Sebastian Pinera on Saturday added a major cabinet reshuffle to a growing list of reforms he has promised to tame inequality and quell mass protests that have rocked the South American nation.
His announcement follows a peaceful rally late Friday that saw 1 million Chileans flood the streets to call for reforms to the country´s social and economic model.
Chile, the world´s top copper producer, has traditionally been one of the region´s most prosperous and stable free-market economies, but entrenched inequality and spiraling costs of living have sparked calls for change.
“I have put all my ministers on notice in order to restructure my cabinet to confront these new demands,” Pinera told reporters Saturday at mid-day from the La Moneda presidential palace.
Pinera did not announce the specifics of the reshuffle, nor did he say when he would announce them.
A document obtained by Reuters, however, suggested Pinera was considering replacing the heads of at least nine ministries, including the ministries of interior, defense, economy, transportation and environment.
Protests in Chile began over a hike in subway fares more than a week ago but boiled into riots that have killed at least 17 people, resulted in more than 7,000 arrests and caused more than $1.4 billion of losses to Chilean businesses.
The center-right Pinera trounced the leftist opposition during 2017 elections. But the mass rallies throughout Chile have forced Pinera to change tact and tone, upending his policy goals and now, forcing overhaul his cabinet.
Pinera is looking to “buy time” by announcing the reshuffle and putting all of his ministers on notice, said Lucía Dammert, a political analyst with Santiago-based think-tank Espacio Público. But, she said Chileans would not wait much longer for specifics.
“The people are asking for a change…and now he´s left us without a cabinet,” she said, adding she expected further announcements shortly.
Chile’s unrest is the latest in a flare-up of protests in South America and around the world – from Beirut to Barcelona – each with local triggers but sharing in common anger at ruling elites and inequality.
Pinera, a billionaire businessman, called for a new “social contract” earlier this week in response to protesters’ demands. He has promised to boost the minimum wage and pensions, ditch fare hikes on public transportation and fix the country’s ailing health care system.
The riots, which decimated swaths of the city´s metro and wrought nearly $1 billion in damages to business, prompted Pinera to declare a “state of emergency” and place the military in charge of security across large swaths of the country.
Heavily armed soldiers manning roadblocks have enforced strict nightly curfews around the city for seven days.
Speaking with reporters Saturday morning, Pinera said he would lift the state of emergency on Sunday evening at midnight “if circumstances allow.”
Chile´s military said in a statement it would not enforce a curfew on Saturday night, adding the city “had tended to normalcy…thanks to the contribution of all of its citizens.”
Throughout the day Saturday, protesters gathered in Santiago’s central plazas, rallying peacefully but in much smaller numbers than on Friday night, when more than 1 million people took to the streets.
Protests and occasional skirmishes with security forces continued in other Chilean cities.
As evening fell on Santiago, many citizens emerged on terraces and street corners, returning to a nightly routine of banging pots with wooden spoons to show solidarity with protester´s demands.
U.N. human rights boss Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile, has called for independent investigations into the deaths in weekend protests. Amnesty International has also said it will send a fact-finding mission to Chile amid allegations of abuses.
(Reporting by Dave Sherwood; additional reporting by Natalia Ramos, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Cynthia Osterman)