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Citizen Revolt, Police Repression In Far Southern Chile

September 5, 2012

Residents in far southern Chile’s Aysen region demand more government attention (Periodico El Ciudadano)

The most sparsely populated of Chile’s 15 regions, Aysén is in many ways the most isolated as well. But in recent weeks, a burst of popular unrest has lifted the normally out of sight, out of mind outpost to the top of President Sebastián Piñera’s priority list.

Frustrated by what they insist has been a long history of neglect by Chile’s Santiago-based central government, activists in Aysén launched a series of protests beginning Feb. 13, when a group of artisan fishers occupied an airport landing strip on the island of Melinka. The following day protestors barricaded the road leading between Puerto Aysén, one of the far-southern region’s principal cities, and nearby Puerto Chacabuco.

Authorities in Santiago – some 1,600 kilometers to the north – responded by dispatching heavily-armed riot police, which clashed with demonstrators in and around Puerto Aysén. The unrest quickly spread to other parts of the region, including Coyhaique, home to about half of Aysén’s 100,000 residents. More police repression followed, turning the violent demonstrations into a national and highly politicized affair that continues to dominate headlines.

Workers, artisan fishers, students, environmentalists and others involved in the Movimiento Social por Aysén, the suddenly high-profile umbrella group leading the demonstrations, say the cost of living in the isolated region, which is only accessible from the north by air or sea, is untenable. The situation there is further complicated, they say, by a general lack of good employment opportunities.

Compared to residents in Santiago, people in Aysén pay almost 9% more for gasoline (US$1.73 per liter vs. US$1.59), 11% more for bread (US$2.27 per kilo vs. U$2.04) and 65% more for electricity. Those differences can be especially galling for someone trying to scrape by on Chile’s minimum wage – roughly $375 per month – which is standard for all regions.

“When Chile shows off its impressive numbers, its great [growth] figures, when it presents itself as an emerging country, that’s not something we all feel first hand. Especially those of us who live on the mainland and yet still have to go through a foreign country [Argentina] to get anywhere. Even though we’re on the mainland, we’re an island,” the Movimiento’s main spokesperson, Iván Fuentes, told the BBC.

Among other things, members of the Movimiento Social por Aysén demand the central government offer subsidies to reduce fuel costs, improve local health services, follow through on promises to better connect the region to the mainland, provide Aysén with a quality university and allow residents there a greater say over major investment projects like the controversial HidroAysén hydroelectric dam venture.

Three weeks of “unacceptable repression”

Still on his summer vacation when the problems in Aysén first began, President Piñera cut his holiday short and returned to Santiago on Feb. 19. He immediately sent his health and transport ministers, Jaime Mañalich and Pedro Pablo Errázuriz respectively, to negotiate with the protestors.

Encouraged that the matter could be resolved quickly, Mañalich said his first meeting with representatives of the Movimiento ended with a “complete agreement.” It’s necessary, he told reporters Feb. 20, “that other ministers continue coming to the region so that we can go about resolving one by one the issues that are bothering the citizens.”

In the meantime, however, Carabineros (uniformed police) flown in from the north continued to engage in daily clashes with demonstrators. Human rights observers chronicled numerous abuse cases. A 49-year-old named Teófilo Haros lost an eye after being shot in the face by a police. Many others sustained impact wounds from rubber and in some cases metal pellets fired by police. And in Coyhaique, police used one of their armored jeeps to run down a 22-year-old man named Camilo Pallapán, whom they later beat with sticks.

“The streets are burning,” Elías Muñoz, a reporter with a Coyhaique-based Radio Santa María, told the online news site El Mostrador. “We’ve never seen anything like this before. I don’t think this will end well. The people are losing patience.”

Demanding an end to the police repression, a group of some 50 public workers temporarily occupied Coyhaique’s main police station on Feb. 22. The heavy-handed police tactics also drew rebukes from Amnesty International and from Dep. Sergio Ojeda, head of the Cámara de Diputados’ human rights commission, who visited Aysén first hand.

“After speaking with the leaders [of the Movimiento], with the bishop [Luis Infanti], and with people who have been injured during these demonstrations, the testimonies are clear and the facts point to an unacceptable repression,” Ojeda, a member of the centrist Democrata Christiano (DC) party, told reporters March 3.

Minister Mañalich’s hopes for a quick resolution to the conflict proved overly optimistic as the impasse dragged on throughout the month of February and into March. President Piñera sent a third cabinet member, Energy Minister Rodrigo Álvarez, to Aysén on Feb. 27, but he too returned to Santiago empty handed.

By the end of the first week in March, however, the two sides did finally reach something of an understanding. On March 6 – after insisting just the day before that it wouldn’t negotiate “on its knees” – the Movimiento accepted the government’s demand that it lift its many roadblocks. In exchange, the government agreed to engage in a “constructive, respectful and reasonable dialogue that allows [both sides] to advance satisfactorily toward meeting the pending needs,” said Andrés Chadwick, the Piñera administration’s top spokesperson.

In statements issued the following day, Chadwick warned the people of Aysén not to expect answers within “just a couple of days.” Many of the demands, he explained, are “gradual problems” that require legislative proposals or collaboration between different ministries.

More Trouble On The Horizon

How gradual an approach Aysén’s Movimiento is willing to accept from the government is anybody’s guess. As of press time, talks remained tense. But even if this week’s tenuous truce does prove lasting, President Piñera would be hard pressed to chalk it up as a victory.

Politically, the Aysén uprising – and the fact it took his government more than three weeks to “resolve” – was a blow the already unpopular president can ill afford. Piñera’s approval rating is currently in the low 30% range, making him an easy target for opposition leaders and civil society organizations. He has plenty of critics on the right as well. Sen. Antonio Horvath of the center-right Renvoación Nacional (RN) repeatedly questioned the administration’s handling of the crisis in Aysén, as did Dep. David Sandoval of the far-right Unión Democrata Independiente (UDI), who accused the state of being “very irresponsible in the extreme zones.”

A second problem for Piñera is that the unrest in Aysen puts more pressure on his administration to answer pending citizen demands in other “extreme zones,” including in the far southern region of Magallanes and in the city of Calama, in Chile’s desert north.

A year ago residents in Magallanes carried out raucous anti-government demonstrations of their own, erecting roadblocks and occupying a major port after the Piñera administration announced it would cut natural gas subsidies. The government ended the standoff by promising to keep the subsidies in the place – for the time being – and to work with locals to establish an official guideline for gas prices.

Deemed a top priority at the time, the new gas law was supposed to be approved by Congress before last September. Six months later, “there hasn’t been any progress on the gas law,” according to Sen. Carlos Bianchi, an independent. “It’s still in the Cámara de Diputados and it was never treated with any urgency.”

Organizers in Magallanes admit they are keeping a close eye on how things unfold in Aysén. The same is true in Calama, which also saw major demonstrations last year. On June 29, 2001 some 20,000 Calama residents took to the streets demanding better infrastructure and services. Activists in the high desert city also want to government to give Calama a portion of the revenue generated by CODELCO, the state-run copper giant, which operates nearby.

Calama Mayor Esteban Velásquez says the city hasn’t forgotten about those demands and is prepared to carry out a new round of protests – starting in April –  if the Piñera administration fails to answer. “The April demonstrations could definitely be like those in Aysen,” Velásquez told CNN Chile last week.

Trying to juggle the demands of the frustrated residents in Aysén, Magallanes and Calama will no doubt be a tall order for the conservative president, who officially began his third year in office on March 11. It will be next to impossible if the country’s university and high school students decide to re-launch their own potent movement.

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