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Chilean leader promises reforms to stem growing national protests

By Clyde Hughes
Chilean leader promises reforms to stem growing national protests
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera Echenique speaks on September 29 at the 74th General Debate at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. Photo by Monika Graff/UPI | License Photo

Oct. 23 (UPI) -- Chilean President Sebastian Pinera has promised citizens a set of reforms, partly to quell ongoing political unrest that's gripped the South American nation for two weeks and been blamed for the deaths of at least 16 people.

The protests began when student activists rallied against a proposed hike in train ticket prices, but have since evolved into demonstrations for larger issues -- including low pay, poor healthcare, income inequality and rising costs of living.

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In a televised speech late Tuesday, Pinera pledged to "make up for lost time" and "pick up the pace and take concrete and urgent steps" to resolve some of the issues.

"It is true that problems accumulated for many decades and that different governments were not able to recognize this situation in all its magnitude," he said. "I recognize and apologize for this lack of vision."

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Pinera promised to increase minimum-level pensions by 20 percent and hike state contributions for the middle class and women. He also vowed to speed up a key health law, reduce drug costs and guarantee a minimum wage of $480 per month.

Pinera scrapped the ticket increase last weekend after three people died in a fire.

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Prosecutors said security forces have arrested 5,400 people so far, but they have done little to satisfy demonstrators. Authorities said in one instance, activists stole and crashed a city bus into a department store in Santiago.

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Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, urged Pinera last week to pay attention to protesters' concerns.

"Instead of suppressing the protests, President Pinera's government should focus its efforts on finding effective solutions to the demands that the Chilean people are expressing through their protests," she said.

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