|Police have arrested 348 demonstrators in Santiago as some streets of Santiago were looted and attacked [Reuters]|
Violent clashes have erupted between protesters and police in Chile’s capital, on the second day of a two-day strike against the policies of President Sebastian Pinera.
Police used water cannons and tear gas to defuse demonstrators who erected burning barricades and threw stones as 348 people were arrested.
Led by students demanding free education, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Santiago in recent months to call for greater distribution of the spoils of a copper price boom in the world’s top producer of the metal.
“Chilean society has reached a point at which we can’t stand being ignored anymore,” said 21 year-old protestor Rebeca Martinez.
“We’ve reached the point of maximum discontent,” said Martinez, as one of Santiago’s main avenues was cut off and patrolled by police officers in full riot gear.
Chile’s main trade union federation, the CUT, said up to 50,000 civil servants, transport and dock workers, teachers and students had joined the strike on Thursday, but the government said most workers had ignored the strike call.
“We’ve had numerous episodes of hooded protesters in small groups spreading out and damaging and looting different shops, businesses and supermarkets,” said Rodrigo Ubilla, the Interior Ministry under-secretary.
Public transportation was running, and operations at some of the world’s biggest copper mines were not affected by the protests that also seek to pressure the government into raising wages and revamping the constitution and tax system.
While Chile’s economy is a magnet for investors thanks to prudent fiscal and monetary policies carried out by the Pinera government, many ordinary Chileans feel they are not sharing in Chile’s economic miracle.
Workers at some of the world’s biggest copper mines have staged strikes of their own to demand a bigger share of windfall copper profits. Workers at BHP Billiton’s Escondida, the world’s largest copper mine, halted a two-week strike earlier this month that stoked global supply fears.
Previous governments have faced one-day national strikes before, but this was the first 48 hour national strike in Chile’s history.
Chilean Finance Minister Felipe Larrain said the stoppage would cost the economy $200m a day.
“We want to be able to push ahead with our programmes,” he was quoted as saying by Reuters.
“Government programmes are not created in the streets but at the polls.”
A recent poll showed Pinera to be the least popular president since the end of General Pinochet’s rule in 1990, even a major Cabinet reshuffle in July has failed to quell unrest.