Chile marks 30 years of democracy; students ramp up protests against inequality

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – President Sebastian Pinera celebrated 30 years since Chile’s return to democracy on Wednesday, but students calling for Pinera himself to leave office due to income inequality and other issues led civil disobedience protests, skirmishing with police around the capital and disrupting public transport.

Pinera said in a speech at the presidential palace that democracy was squandered when former dictator Augusto Pinochet seized power through violence, and urged against substituting “intolerance for dialogue.” Opposition leaders boycotted the ceremony, calling it inappropriate given a heavy-handed police response to protests over inequality that began last October.

On March 11, 1990, Pinochet handed the presidency to Patricio Aylwin. Pinochet had ruled since September, 1973, when he overthrew the socialist government of Salvador Allende. During his regime, some 3,000 people died or disappeared while many more were tortured, according to government truth commission findings.

“We must combat violence and care for our democracy,” Pinera said. “Democracy is never guaranteed.”

High school students, many in uniform and some wearing bandanas and gas masks, led a day of civil disobedience called by unions to protest against Pinera marking two years in office.

#FueraPinera (Pinera Out) was the top trending topic on Twitter in Chile as teenagers in the capital shut down at least 15 metro stations by dangling their feet over the lines, seized control of several schools and clashed with riot police who made liberal use of tear gas.

Marcela Mora, a student dressed in blue gym slip and pink hoodie, said that despite pledges from Pinera of fresh laws to tackle inequality, nothing had changed.

“We have to continue protesting,” she said. “The government does not provide solutions to the problems of the people.”

Gabriela Sotomayor, 17, complained about preemptive police action as protesters headed to Plaza Italia, the Santiago hub of the demonstrations.

“We want to get to Plaza Italia; they throw gas as soon as we get close,” she said. “We have to keep the protests alive.”

Fresh claims of police brutality have resurfaced this month as protests restarted with the end of the southern hemisphere summer holiday.

On Sunday, onlookers captured video footage of police beating Patricio Bao, 69, who required 14 stitches in his eyelid and head after an assault during the International Women´s Day march in central Santiago.

Footage that went viral on social media shows two heavily armed riot policeman beating him with batons, throttling and dragging him. Several women are heard screaming and begging the police to stop.

Police said Bao had attacked an officer prior to the beating and been detained. Chilean investigative police (PDI) and prosecutors said they were investigating the case.

The incident was widely condemned, with Chile’s interior minister declaring it an “excessive use of force.”

Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch, called it a “grotesque, brutal spectacle.”

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