SANTIAGO, Chile — After three weeks of nationwide protests against the government, President Sebastián Piñera of Chile said he would initiate a process to draft a new Constitution for the country.
The president’s announcement, made on Sunday, came hours after meeting with lawmakers from his coalition, and was the first time the government expressed a willingness to replace the current Constitution. But for many, it was too little, too late.
“Piñera has characteristically reacted late to the crisis, but I value that he is now open to a new Constitution,” said Jaime Quintana, the president of the Senate.
The demand for a new Constitution has been a persistent theme throughout the protests, which were set off by a 4 cent hike in the subway fare, but quickly turned into widespread demonstrations by thousands against persistent inequality and the free market policies inherited from the Pinochet dictatorship.
As of Nov. 10, five people have been killed by either the police or the military, while 1,000 have been injured in police shootings since the protests began in mid-October, according to the National Institute for Human Rights, an independent state institution. Another 767 have been injured through beatings, tear gas or other means, the institute said, and more than 5,600 people have been arrested since the protests began.
Rubber pellets shot by the police directly at people’s faces have left almost 200 with serious injuries or blind in one eye. On Saturday, Gustavo Gatica, a 21-year-old student, was shot in both eyes, prompting protests outside the clinic where he was treated.
The human rights institute has sent observers to the protests and received over 2,800 reports of police beatings, threats, rape and other forms of sexual violence, verbal and physical abuses and simulated executions.
On Sunday, John Cobin, a United States citizen, fired several shots at demonstrators, and injured one, during a peaceful march in the upscale beach resort of Reñaca, part of the city of Viña del Mar, where he lives. He moved to Chile in 1996.
Mr. Cobin is in detention and charged with attempted murder. The shooting spurred violent protests in Reñaca for hours.
Chile’s Constitution was designed behind closed doors during the Pinochet dictatorship and provides a limited role for the state in the economy.
Gonzalo Blumel, the interior minister, said on Sunday that the government hoped to set up a “constituent congress,” in which a group of legislators would decide on a new text “with participation from citizens,” and submit it for approval through a plebiscite.
But this proposed method for a new Constitution is a far cry from demonstrators’ demands for direct citizen participation in creating a new Constitution.
Self-convened local assemblies, or cabildos, are being held all over the country, often in parks, plazas and even on sidewalks, to analyze the roots of the discontent, to prioritize issues and to discuss how to create a new Constitution.
Over 15,000 such assemblies have taken place since October and their conclusions are being collected by Unidad Social, a coalition of nearly 130 labor, professional and social organizations, as a way to set forth a coherent, unified set of national demands.
Earlier this month, 330 of the 345 local municipal governments resolved to organize a national vote next month, in which people will be asked about different issues, including the need for a new Constitution and the way to achieve it.
Congress has responded to the crisis by pushing through bills aimed at reducing inequality and the cost of living and enhancing democracy. These include new laws to lower the workweek from 44 to 40 hours, to raise real estate taxes for properties worth over $1 million and to reduce prices for medicine, among other measures.
This week, legislators plan to debate lowering their own salaries.
Since Oct. 18, there has not been one day without some sort of demonstration in Santiago, the capital, or elsewhere, rarely organized by any particular group, with word spreading by social media postings.
Often they end up violently, with exchanges between stone-throwing protesters who set up barricades and police forces using water cannons, tear gas, batons and rubber pellets. Sometimes the situation devolves into looting and arson attacks.
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