Chilean president points to foreign forces behind violent protests
Chilean president Sebastián Piñera said his government was investigating foreign interventionin an outbreak of violent protests last month in one of the most prosperous countries in the region.
While at pains to claim that he had heard the complaints of protesters, Mr Piñera hinted at dark forces behind the violence in an interview with the Financial Times.
“There is a lot of evidence that behind this situation there are forces that before were not operating, or we did not know were operating, in Chile,” Mr Piñera said. He noted that Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolás Maduro, had publicly supported the protesters.
Mr Piñera admitted that Chile’s intelligence service was working “very badly” and required “profound transformation and modernisation”. But he said the government had also received information from the US state department and others that suggested that more than just “the usual delinquents” and “groups associated with drug traffickers” were behind the violence.
The billionaire former businessman confessed that he was caught unaware by the mass protests de manding greater equality, sparked by a 3.7 per cent rise in metro fares. He had triumphantly declared that Chile was “an oasis of stability” in the region in a previous interview with the Financial Times just days before the unrest broke out. “It was true at the time. But life is full of surprises, and that is what is so wonderful about life,” he said.
“People and countries go through times of change, and Chile is going through an intense, and Ihope productive, time of change.”
Until recently, Chile had been preparing to host two major international summit meetings in Santiago this year, with world leaders including Donald Trump and Xi Jinping due to visit this week. Last month, throngs of security officers from foreign governments were seen inspecting La Moneda, the presidential palace.
With more than three weeks of daily protests around the country, there were no signs of the most hardcore protesters leaving the streets. “Nobody predicted this explosion of violence, crime, looting, vandalism and arson, and consequently I don’t think anybody knows when it is going to end,” said Mr Piñera.
He said violent protesters must be met “with the full weight of the law”. But commentators have blamed excessive use of force by the Chilean authorities for exacerbating the unrest. At least five Chileans have died as a result of actions taken by security forces, most due to injuries from rubber bullets.
“If there have been violations . . . if there has been an excessive use of force . . . [this must be investigated] and judged by the justice tribunals,” said Mr Piñera.
The Chilean government has proposed a package of measures aimed at appeasing the protesters, including higher minimum wages and pensions, estimated to cost at least $1.5bn.
The aim, Mr Piñera claimed, was to create a country that was “fairer, with greater equality of opportunity and social mobility, and with fewer abuses and arbitrary privileges”.
“Of course that won’t fix all the problems, but it is a big step forwards,” he said.
He has also announced a “citizen consultation” process around the country, similar to the one launched by French president Emmanuel Macron to appease the gilets jaunes protesters.
“Many pretend to be the interpreters and representatives of the people, but no one has giventhem that role . . . so it is better to listen to the people and subsequently find solutions within ourconstitution, democracy and institutions, and not outside them as some would like,” said Mr Piñera.
While he said widespread demands to change the constitution were valid and must be addressed, Mr Piñera implied that it would be a mistake to call a constitutional assembly to rewrite the document. Chile’s constitution has its origins in the 1973-90dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet and is the refore considered by many to be illegitimate.
“If we [change the constitution] outside the boundaries of democracy and institutionality, we would be undermining the very foundations of democracy and the rule of law,” he said.
Although the short-term economic effects of the crisis will be “very negative” — not only because of the damage caused through vandalism and looting, but also because of the hit to investor confidence — the long-term impact depended on how citizen demands were channelled, said Mr Piñera.
“If we fall into a wave of populism, demagoguery and irresponsibility, we risk throwing the babyout with the bath water. That would have permanent negative consequences,” said Mr Piñera, referring to the benefits of an economic model that has allowed Chile to become the richest country in the region.
“If on the other hand we listen with attention and prudence to the voice of the people, but react with responsibility and rationality, then [the protests] can be positive for society and the economy as it will allow us to build a more inclusive society with greater equality.”