Chile govt meets with unions in bid to end crisis

by Paulina ABRAMOVICH
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Chile has been rocked by social unrest for more than a month

Chile's government met for the first time with organized labor on Thursday, aiming to find a way out of the social unrest that has rocked the country for more than a month.

Members of President Sebastian Pinera's conservative government met with representatives of the Social Unity Board, a collective of social and labor groups who were behind many of the calls to protest.

Among the collective's members is the Workers' United Center of Chile, the most powerful union in the country, the teacher's union and the "NO+AFP" group, which calls for an end to Chile's private pension system.

"We have made it very clear that we are not prepared to negotiate behind people's backs, that is not our spirit, and that's it's the government that must now provide answers to proposals that have been made," Mario Aguilar, president of the teacher's union, said after the meeting.

The country's worst crisis in decades has seen furious Chileans take to the streets to protest social and economic inequality, and against an entrenched political elite that comes from a small number of the country's wealthiest families, among other issues.

Pinera's government has announced a raft of reforms to end the crisis, including the drafting of a new constitution to replace the current one that dates back to the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, who ruled from 1973 to 1990.

But trade unions and many demonstrators are asking the government to go further, including by increasing the minimum wage by 50 percent, and by replacing the private pension system inherited from the Pinochet era.

Interior Minister Gonzalo Blumel, who chaired the meeting, welcomed the parties' agreement to negotiate over wages, access to healthcare and pensions.

Meanwhile, parliament has been debating several bills introduced by the government to boost law enforcement, including an anti-rioting proposal and another to allow the military to protect public infrastructure without declaring a state of emergency.

The 42 days of protest have left 23 dead, including five at the hands of security forces, and more than 2,000 wounded.

That includes more than 200 demonstrators who have suffered eye injuries -- often resulting in being blinded in one eye -- from rubber bullets and pellets fired by riot police.

Demonstrations have become an almost daily occurrence in the capital Santiago and elsewhere the country, and regularly degenerate into violence, fires and looting.

The violence "is reaching levels not seen in Chile since the return of democracy" in 1990, Defense Minister Alberto Espina warned Congress in an appearance Wednesday.

Meanwhile Human Rights Watch this week accused the police of "serious human rights violations," and said it had received hundreds of reports of abuses, including beatings and sexual assault.

The social unrest has battered markets, and on Thursday Chile's central bank announced it would inject $20 billion into the economy to stabilize the plummeting value of the peso.

Chile has been rocked by social unrest for more than a month

Furious Chileans have taken to the streets to protest against social and economic inequality, among other issues

Demonstrations have become an almost daily occurrence in the capital Santiago