It was Friday afternoon when Chilean President Sebastian Pinera decided to do something off the cuff, something that often gets him in trouble.
On his way home from his office at the Moneda Palace in Chile’s capital, Santiago, he ordered his driver to make an unscheduled stop at Plaza Italia, unofficially renamed Dignity Plaza by millions of Chilean protesters.
For nearly five months, this route home had been absolutely off-limits to Pinera. Every day from October 18 and up until a couple of weeks ago, the plaza was ground zero for demonstrations to demand social reforms. Many protesters lost their eyesight from pellet wounds and thousands were injured as riot police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse crowds.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have issued scathing reports documenting abuses on the part of authorities.
But when a state of emergency was declared on March 18 to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, the protests were put on hold.
The Plaza – and the statue of war hero General Manuel Baquedano that stands in the middle of it – was no longer a major battleground, or tourist attraction. This part of Metropolitan Santiago is in fact under total lockdown, with residents obliged to stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
It was in that context that Chile’s embattled president, whose popularity was beginning to rise from a historic low of 6 percent to nearly 12 percent, decided to get out of his car, walk over to the statue, and sit down to have his photograph taken.
Perhaps he was thinking of himself as a victorious modern-day version of General Baquedano. Or maybe he had just not calculated that the photo and the video of his escapade would go viral.
Like many people, when I first saw the photo of the President sitting in his shirtsleeves, at the base of the statue, with graffiti reading “DOWN WITH PINERA” clearly visible, I thought it was a prank.
“Incredible! I thought it was fake news. The president of the republic strolling around Plaza Italia while the government is urging the population to stay indoors. This is an irresponsible and provocative gesture from a head of state, especially when we are under a state of catastrophe and in the middle of a pandemic,” said former Foreign Minister and opposition party leader Heraldo Munoz.
Just hours earlier, Pinera’s Health Minister Jaime Manalich had scolded Chileans in the southern city of Temuco for not taking the lockdown decree seriously. With some 4,000 cases, Chile has the second-largest number of confirmed infections of COVID-19 in Latin America.
“How do you expect people to take it seriously if the leader of the country laughs right in our face and strolls around ground zero,” asked housewife Marcela Lopez.
But the issue goes well beyond the president breaking his own rules. Millions of Chileans who had called a temporary halt to their social protests to allow Pinera to implement anti-pandemic measures are outraged.
“What the president did by going to Dignity Plaza to take a photograph of himself is a demonstration of contempt and lack of respect for the citizens of Chile who since October 18 have been demonstrating against all the pain, injustice and inequality in this country. People have died there,” said Carolina Marzan of the centre-left wing Party for Democracy (PPD).
The popular music group Illapu tweeted that Pinera’s “faux pas” will bring more people onto the streets than ever before once the epidemic is over. “The Plaza belongs to the people. We will return with more force, and we will be millions.”
Pinera’s cabinet ministers were too embarrassed to refer to the incident directly. On Saturday, when Deputy Health Minister Paula Daza was asked to comment on the effect of Pinera’s actions, she requested the media to refer to the president’s tweet.
“I stopped for a few minutes to greet a group of policemen and soldiers who were directing traffic at Plaza Baquedano (Italia). I took a photo and continued on my way. I regret if this action could have been misinterpreted,” tweeted Pinera by way of apology.