SANTIAGO – Chile’s President Sebastian Piñera announced on Saturday a cabinet change and an end to the state of emergency around the country, in search of a new normal after a historic march a day earlier.
Piñera said he “heard the profound message from citizens, from the Chilean men and women asking for and demanding a more just society” during the march on Friday, which mobilized around 1.2 million people in Santiago alone and is unparalleled in the country since the return of democracy almost 30 years ago.
He made two announcements: the lifting of the state of emergency and asked for his entire Cabinet to step down.
“I’ve asked all of the ministers to resign in order to create a new cabinet to confront these new demands,” Piñera said from the La Moneda presidential palace.
Justice Minister Hernan Larrain said: “We are all at the disposal of the president and as ministers we have told him to have our posts so that he can structure with those he deems fit.”
For his part, Labor Minister Nicolas Monckeberg said all ministers must adapt to this new phase and noted that Chile had “changed” over the past week and hoped that these changes were positive.
The opposition acknowledged that Piñera had decided to renew his Cabinet, although it called for wider changes, such as a new Constitution.
“This Cabinet was already worn out. It must have a Cabinet with new ideas, with changes (and that) summon a new Constitution,” said Senator Guido Girardi of the progressive Party for Democracy.
Left-leaning Social Convergence party lawmaker Gabriel Boric stressed that the public had been calling for deeper structural reforms, and advocated a referendum as the best way to achieve a new Constitution.
Senator Felipe Kast of the center-right Evopoli party did not rule out the possibility of a new Constitution and called for a budget started from scratch, keeping in mind the needs of the public.
The president also denounced the “brutal and destructive violence” perpetrated by some opponents of the government and defended his decision to declare a state of emergency and deploy the army.
Piñera intends to lift the state of emergency around the country from midnight Sunday (0300 GMT Monday).
His statement followed announcements by the military commanders administering the state of emergency in Santiago, Coquimbo, La Serena and Concepcion that no curfews would be in effect in those jurisdictions on Saturday.
On Saturday, five Santiago metro lines and almost all of the bus service reopened. Although many large supermarkets were closed, restaurants and shops reopened and the atmosphere returned to normal in the streets.
Some citizens interviewed by local television channels expressed concern for the goal to recover normalcy, and said demonstrations should continue until real change is achieved.
“My biggest fear is that this stops and everything remains the same,” said a banner of a young woman.
As evening approached, demonstrations began again in the Plaza Italia and other places, although not as big as those over the past week.
Incidents arising from the demonstrations have left at least 19 dead, including five people allegedly killed by police and soldiers, while 582 others have suffered injuries, more than half of them from the impact of rubber bullets or tear-gas canisters.
The National Human Rights Institute (NHRI), an autonomous public agency that monitors the actions of security forces, put the number of arrests at 2,840 and said that it has verified reports of torture and other abuses by police and soldiers.
The NHRI has so far filed 70 complaints: 15 for sexual violence, five for homicides, 50 for torture, and others for cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. It has asked the government to clarify the number of deaths.
A United Nations mission will travel to Chile next week to investigate possible human rights violations during the protests. Michelle Bachelet, the current UN high commissioner for Human Rights, was Piñera’s predecessor as president.
Friday’s rally in Santiago, which was the largest popular mobilization in Chile since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990, capped a week of sometimes violent protests against the austerity policies of the right-wing government.
Long-simmering discontent over growing economic inequality boiled over last week after the Santiago metro raised fares to the equivalent of more than $1 a ride, a level that could have forced minimum-wage workers to spend up to a quarter of their monthly income on transportation.
Though Piñera moved quickly to rescind the fare increase, the protests continued, driven by anger over low pensions and salaries and the high cost of electricity, gas, university education and health care.