By Dave Sherwood and Fabian Cambero
SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Chile’s finance minister warned on Tuesday of the “grave consequences” felt by the nation’s economy on account of three weeks of often violent unrest and protests, as the peso slid 4% to hit a historic low against the dollar.
Ignacio Briones said the weakening of the peso was a “sign of worry” that he and his colleagues were watching “very carefully.”
He called on Chileans to help restore “normality” so that businesses could return to proper functioning and people could return to work, after successive weeks of strikes, marches and damage to property and public transport that he has estimated cost the economy $3 billion.
“The peaceful marches have made their point and that message is reflected in the measures that the government and the opposition have taken,” he told journalists in Santiago. “All our actions have consequences and they are having grave consequences that are now being seen in the economy and particularly on entrepreneurs and in the most vulnerable sectors.”
The country’s currency plunged to more than 800 pesos per dollar, down more than 10 percent since mid-October, by midday on Tuesday as state workers and some unionized miners in Chile announced a nationwide strike, saying they were not yet satisfied following the government’s decision to rewrite the country’s heavily criticized dictatorship-era constitution.
Demonstrations across the country have sometimes devolved into arson, riots and looting, leaving at least 23 people dead, 2,000 civilians hospitalized and more than 1,000 complaints of rights abuses, according to human rights groups and prosecutors.
The southern Latin nation, most recently known as one of the region’s most stable and prosperous, is also now seeing a knock-on economic impact.
Chile’s central bank president, Mario Marcel, urged calm, saying on Monday that despite the peso’s precipitous fall, Chile’s fiscal situation remained “solid.”
He said the bank was willing to act in the face of “anomalous situations” and that it has “a variety of tools at its disposal to do this.”
Thousands of people including members of unions adhering to the call for a general strike by the umbrella trade union grouping marched through Chilean cities once more on Tuesday.
Truck drivers and some other protesters set up barricades on at least two major highways connecting the capital Santiago with outlying cities and ports, prompting huge back-ups on key regional arteries.
The road blockages prompted the Valparaiso-based Congress to shut down for the day.
Rodrigo Ubilla, the Interior Ministry subsecretary, said there had been a “low observance” of the strike call.
Most of Chile’s copper mining companies said they had maintained their operations on Tuesday despite the protests, albeit with some delays and sporadic unrest, unions and management teams told Reuters.
To date, copper production in the world’s largest producer of the red metal has not been significantly hurt by weeks of protests pushing demands for improvements in pensions, health and education.
Schools and businesses throughout Santiago were largely closed, and construction workers scrambled to board up shops and restaurants in anticipation of continued riots.
Valentina Donoso, 21, a university student who pays for college by selling bread on the street, said she planned to join the rallies later in the day. She rejected the recent violence but said something still needed to give.
“I’m in favor of the protests and of making some noise. If you go to protest with white doves, nothing happens,” she said.
‘THREAT TO LIFE’
On Monday evening, a police officer allegedly shot a drama student from the University of Chile in the face in a protest in Plaza Italia.
Ennio Vivaldi, the rector of the University of Chile, said the university would soon file a legal complaint. He accused the police of using “tremendous violence” against peaceful protests while failing to tackle vandalism and looting.
“Never again should there be an attack on a young man in the face with bullets from two meters away,” he said. “This must stop.”
In the northern city of Antofagasta, the Appeal Court issued a protection order requested by a civilian against the police and Interior Ministry, that rubber bullets could not be used against peaceful protesters and tear gas should be “limited,” a judicial authority said in a statement.
The government’s spokesman, Karla Rubilar, responded that police could only use firearms where there was a threat to life.
“We could not agree more. Of course they cannot use rubber bullets on peaceful protests,” she said.
(Reporting by Dave Sherwood and Fabian Cambero, additional reporting by Froilan Romero and Aislinn Laing, Editing by Bernadette Baum and Steve Orlofsky)