Chile: residents block roads in Aysén region

After blocking roads for 13 days to demand more resources for Chile’s isolated southern Aysén region, local citizens’ groups opened up the Presidente Ibáñez Bridge in Puerto Aysén on Feb. 25. The move came one day after the Social Movement for the Aysén Region, the coalition of fishing people, unionists, cab drivers and students that has led the protests, presented the national government with a new list of demands, asking for a response over the weekend. Iván Fuentes, one of the movement’s leaders, told Radio Cooperativa that the protesters opened the bridge”first of all [to provide] free access to the community, and most importantly, to give a signal to the government that just as we are vigorous in our mobilization, we’re also rational people who can carry on a conversation.” (AFP, Feb. 25, via La Nación, Paraguay)

Located some 1,300 km from Santiago, the Aysén region is difficult to reach from the rest of the country, and the 100,000 residents pay some of the highest rates for fuel in the country; they say they spend about $220 a month just for heating. The protesters’ 11 demands on the government of rightwing president Sebastián Piñera include a new hospital, the creation of a regional university, and subsidies for transportation, fuel and basic food supplies. (La Jornada, Mexico, Feb. 21, Feb. 22)

Violence broke out between protesters and the carabineros militarized police the night of Feb. 21-22 over control of the Ibáñez Bridge. At least 10 people were injured and nine were arrested. Three people were transported to a hospital in Santiago after being shot in the face with pellets; one lost an eye, and all three were reportedly in danger of losing their vision. National Human Rights Institute (INDH) president Lorena Fries acknowledged that the carabineros had acted in an”indiscriminate and disproportionate” manner, using tear gas in enclosed spaces. Fries could not confirm the protesters’ charge that police agents had fired metal pellets at them, but she said that even if the bullets were rubber, the way they were fired violated police regulations. The protesters responded to police violence by peacefully occupying a police station, an act supported by officials in Coyhaique, the regional capital. (LJ, Feb. 23; Prensa Latina, Feb. 25)

Other Chileans have been sympathetic to the Aysén protests, with support appearing even at the famous international song festival held each February in the coastal city of Viña del Mar. Police have managed to keep ticket holders from carrying in signs supporting the Aysén movement, but at one point local actor and musician Daniel Muñoz shouted”¡Viva Aysén!” from the stage, to applause from the audience. Outside the events, some protesters have displayed signs about Aysén, while student activists–whose strike tied up Chile’s secondary and university system for much of last year—have denounced the lavish expenditures at the red-carpet festival. (PL, Feb. 25)

The Aysén region has also been the subject of protests over the HidroAysén project, a plan to build a complex of five dams that environmentalists say would threaten fjords and valleys in the Patagonia region [see Update #1101]. Chilean health minister Jaime Mañalich has charged that the current protests are led by opponents of the dam project: the journalist Patricio Segura and the organization Patagonia Without Dams.”[T]here is an agenda by Patagonia Without Dams forces, financed by national and international forces, to radicalize this movement,” Mañalich said. Protest leaders dismissed the claim. Local labor leader Jovel Chodil noted that Patagonia Without Dams is only one of the many groups in the regional protest movement. (El Diario de Aysén, Feb. 24)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Feb. 26.

See our last post on Chile.