Protest chaos returns to Chile despite cabinet reshuffle

Santiago: Fresh protests and attacks on businesses have erupted in Chile despite President Sebastian Pinera's replacement of eight key cabinet ministers with more centrist figures and his attempts to assure the country that he has heard calls for greater equality and improved social services.

Thousands of protesters crowded again into central Santiago on Monday (Tuesday AEST), and one group set fire to a small shopping centre that houses a fast-food restaurant and stores. Firefighters were battling the blaze.

An anti-government protester stand guard at a burning barricade in Santiago, Chile, on Monday.Credit:AP

Other looters attacked a pharmacy, and there was an attempt to set a subway station on fire. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people attempted to get home from work on free buses sent to replace trains out of service due to the burning of dozens of stations over the last week in Latin America's most modern public transportation system.

Pinera replaced the heads of the interior, treasury, economy, labour and four other ministries with generally younger officials seen as more centrist and accessible.

"Chile has changed and the government must change," the President said.

Firefighters force open the bottom floor of a small shopping centre that caught fire amid anti-government protests. The cause of the fire started is unconfirmed.Credit:AP

Jorge Sepulveda, a 33-year-old truck driver, said the continuing unrest had hurt his bottom line.

"I don't dispute that people have the right to protest, but this is beginning to affect us all," he said as he smoked a cigarette on a street corner downtown. But, he said, Pinera's announcements had yet to satisfy him.

"He needs to listen to the people," Sepulveda said. "This isn't over yet."

Protesters almost uniformly say they are frustrated with the so-called neoliberal model that has left Chile with region-topping prosperity along with a widely criticised private pension system, and two-tiered health and education systems that blend the public and private, with better results for the minority who can afford to pay.

Many Chileans talk of waiting a year for an appointment with a specialist, or families receiving calls to finally set up appointments for loved ones who died months earlier. Hundreds of thousands are hobbled by educational loans that can follow them into their 40s and even 50s.

A firefighter sprays fights a fire at a small shopping centre amid anti-government protests in Santiago on Monday.Credit:AP

Adding to protesters' anger was a military crackdown on demonstrations and looting that has left 1132 hurt, with dozens partially blinded by police or soldiers' gunshot pellets, according to the National Human Rights Institute and the Chilean College of Medicine. The death toll from the 10 days of violence stands at 20, although it is unclear how many were killed by police and how many by looters.

The UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, was sending a delegation to the country on Monday to investigate the situation. Amnesty International was also sending a team.

From afar, Chile has been a regional success story – under democratically elected presidents on the left and right, a free-market consensus has driven growth up, poverty down and won it the region's highest score on the UN Human Development Index, a blend of life expectancy, education and national income per capita. In 2010, Chile became the second Latin member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, after Mexico.

Police fight protesters with a water cannon in Santiago on Monday.Credit:AP

Meanwhile, a 2017 UN report found that the richest 1 per cent of the population earns 33 per cent of the nation's wealth. That helps make Chile the most unequal country in the OECD, slightly worse than Mexico. Pinera himself is a billionaire, one of the country's richest men.

AP, Reuters

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