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Protesters Lift Roadblocks in Southern Chile

Marianela Jarroud

SANTIAGO, Mar 7 2012 (IPS) - Leaders of the protests in Aysén decided to end the roadblocks that had paralysed this southern region of Chile for more than three weeks, and the government promised to “immediately” resume talks to defuse the conflict.

Clean-up crew at the site of a bonfire in a square in Coyhaique, the capital of Aysén. Credit: Movimiento Social por la Región de Aysén

Clean-up crew at the site of a bonfire in a square in Coyhaique, the capital of Aysén. Credit: Movimiento Social por la Región de Aysén

The unanimous decision was taken “for the welfare of the people of the region, not for the sake of dialogue with the government,” Julio López, president of the National Association of Fiscal Employees (ANEF), one of the organisations belonging to the Aysén Region Social Movement, told IPS.

López stressed that the debate on the decision was not based on the state of negotiations with the government, which had demanded the total dismantling of all the roadblocks as a condition for resuming dialogue and responding to the petition for 11 economic and social measures proposed by the movement in this region.

He said “many people have no strength left” to endure the roadblocks, “because they are hungry.”

Some of the more isolated areas of the region, located 1,640 km south of Santiago, have asked for provisions “because their supply lines were completely strangled,” he said.

Iván Fuentes, a spokesman for the Aysén Region Social Movement, said “the needs of our people were also being adversely affected; the goal is not to make our people suffer, it is to meet our people’s needs.”

Now, he said, they hope to reengage in talks with the government as soon as possible, to discuss the demands set forth in the petition that seek to reverse the neglect historically suffered by the Aysén region, which has a cold climate, is located far from the country’s productive areas, and is isolated due to a lack of infrastructure.

Among the demands are new roads, transport subsidies, mandatory consultations with the local population about projects planned for the region, priority for the region in the distribution of profits from the exploitation of natural resources, improvements in health and education services, and lower prices for fuel – gasoline, diesel and wood – and food.

Fuentes said the protests were held “because we wanted the government to listen to us, and ultimately the whole of Chile heard us… It’s a positive experience, a new self-image for Patagonia, to know that Chile appreciates us, and that is what is important.”

The government commended the decision to remove the roadblocks, and said it would “immediately commence a respectful dialogue.”

Energy Minister Rodrigo Álvarez and deputy presidential secretary Claudio Alvarado travelled to Aysén from Santiago on Wedneday Mar. 7.

Álvarez said the government intends to move “calmly” towards solving the region’s demands, which according to analysts are shared by many parts of this South American country: an end to inequalities and improvements in the quality of life.

“The intention is to begin talks as soon as possible. In the course of this morning we will coordinate directly with the leaders about what is the best option, whether to start (the dialogue) this evening or early tomorrow morning,” the minister said.

The leader of the artisanal fisherfolk in Aysén, Henry Angulo, told IPS that out of the 11 demands in the petition, so far “only one has been met, and only halfway” – the demand for more and better access to health care.

The dismantling of the roadblocks will be gradual. “We will work gradually for the region to get back to normal,” Fuentes said. Truck drivers were waiting for their leaders’ official order to lift the blockade of the roads, jammed by long queues of cars transporting tourists and Aysén residents and trucks carrying food and fuel.

Government spokesman Andrés Chadwick referred to the possibility the authorities would decide to enforce the Internal State Security Law, which provides for harsh penalties for actions such as roadblocks.

“We hope that, on the basis of the leaders’ declaration, these actions will cease and public order will be fully restored, and the roads will be cleared for the free circulation of all people in Aysén,” he said.

Fuentes said demonstrators will stay at the side of the roads, monitoring the talks. “What we are doing is taking a step aside from the highway, and there we will wait; no one is going home, we will stand guard over the agreement,” he said.

The partial bridging of the gap between the sides is taking place at a time when the government is being criticised for the disproportionate use of force by the police and for its difficulty in solving social conflicts.

Paradoxically, rightwing President Sebastián Piñera obtained overwhelming support in this region in the second round of the 2010 elections, taking 58.5 percent of the vote, outdone only by the proportion of votes he garnered in Tarapacá, in the north.

“This government does not understand what is happening in Chile. It does not understand the social movements, or what they imply, nor the impact of the change they are creating,” Marta Lagos, a sociologist, told IPS.

She is the head of Latinobarómetro, a public opinion consultancy that carries out a survey based on 19,000 interviews annually in 18 Latin American countries.

The Piñera administration, by its behaviour, “is encouraging protests, and does not realise it. There is a lack of political understanding here,” Lagos said.

Chile today is in a state of permanent upheaval, which began in 2011 with student protests that were unprecedented in the country’s history, but which have no end in sight, she said.

“This country has changed. People have lost their fear of taking to the streets, saying what they think and throwing stones at power. Better said, they have learned to throw stones at power, at any kind of power, in any sphere,” Lagos said.

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