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Protests In Chile



Protesters are once again in the streets of Chile. What we heard were the scenes yesterday in Santiago. People there have been demonstrating against the government for months, venting anger over social inequality in Chile.

NPR's Philip Reeves is in Santiago. Phil, thanks so much for being with us.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: You're welcome.

SIMON: The protests have been going on since October. What seems to be driving them?

REEVES: Well, they're basically being driven by widespread anger over Chile's economic model, which was introduced during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, which ended in 1990. People feel that, you know, relying heavily on the private sector to provide services hasn't worked, that it's made the rich richer, but the government isn't delivering. Protesters complain often that they can't afford education, that the public health system's woefully inadequate.

And one issue they really very often raise is the pension system, which is privatized here. Pension fund managers have been making fat profits, but payments to pensioners are generally woefully low. I spoke to one man at yesterday's protest, the protests you just heard, who says he goes to all these demonstrations whenever he can. His name's Mario Saavedra. He's 72, and his pension is just $230 a month.

MARIO SAAVEDRA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: He says that's impossible to survive on. It's just too low. He says that his pension money is almost all swallowed up by the cost of paying for his daughter's education. So he's now coming out of retirement, looking for a job, but struggling to find one because of his age.

SIMON: I gather, Phil, that thousands of people have been injured and several dozen have actually died since these protests began. But that does not seem to deter the demonstrators.

REEVES: Yeah, the police response is a huge source of anger here. Yesterday, we saw a bit of that. They fired tear gas at a small number of people who were chucking rocks at them. But they also repeatedly unnecessarily tossed tear gas at people who were peacefully protesting on the streets.

There've been hundreds of complaints, some alleging very serious abuses by the police. More than 360 people have eye injuries, which have been caused by the police firing pellets or tear gas canisters directly into their faces. Dozens of them have lost one eye, and in a couple of cases, people have been entirely blinded. I've talked to some of them, too, and they all say that they're going to continue to protest. They're not deterred. They're not afraid, they say. And indeed, yesterday, several them were out on the streets again at a separate protest over police abuse.

SIMON: Phil, how big is this movement? Does it pose a serious threat to the leadership of President Pinera?

REEVES: Yeah, Pinera's been very badly damaged by his handling of it, particularly, Scott, at the beginning when he sent the army onto the streets of Santiago to enforce a curfew. That revived memories of the brutal dictatorship years. His ratings are down to the sort of single-figure mark now, but there's no far - no sign so far that he's going to be forced out. He has made some concessions - improving the minimum wage and announcing an overhaul of the health service and so on. But the protests, although they are, these days, generally smaller, they are continuing. And everyone I've spoken to says this uprising is not over.

SIMON: Any resolution in sight?

REEVES: Possibly. There's going to be a referendum in April on whether Chile should have a new constitution to replace the charter that was imposed on the country during the Pinochet dictatorship. The referendum's widely expected to pass. It'll ask whether people want the constitution to be written by a convention made up entirely of representatives elected from the people or whether some of them could be politicians from Congress.

But once they start work, there's going to be a lot of deep and painful national soul-searching about what kind of country this should be. It's going to be a tough, long process, but people I've talked to are hopeful this could find a path out of this.

SIMON: NPR's Philip Reeves in Santiago. Thanks so much, Phil.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.