Tear gas comes under review following injuries in last week’s protests, as Piñera’s presidential address is met with opposition from inside and outside the National Congress.
The use of tear gas as part of police response to protests has been under review in Chile this week, following an incident in Concepción on 12 May 2011. Paulina Rubilar, a sociology student, was hospitalised with injuries to the face and right eye after being hit by a tear gas bomb as police attempted to disperse a demonstration which formed part of a nationwide day of student action.
On Tuesday, Minister of the Interior, Rodrigo Hinzpeter, announced a temporary suspension of the use of tear gas against protesters, pending a report into its safety. Two senators from the left-wing Partido por la Democracia, Eugenio Tuma and Guido Girardi, also proposed legislation which would permanently outlaw the use of tear gas and other chemicals to disperse public demonstrations.
Senator Tuma argued that the use of tear gas was not compatible with the level of development of Chile’s political institutions, nor ‘with the national and international duty to safeguard citizens’ right to protest and freedom of assembly’. He also claimed that the use of tear gas bombs could not be considered part of a ‘rational and proportional’ response to protest, since deployment could not be clearly focused.
However, the use of tear gas was reinstated prior to President Sebastián Piñera’s state of the nation address on Saturday, when mass protests were again anticipated across the country. Speaking from the National Congress in Valparaíso, he tension heightened as Piñera defended the controversial Hidroaysén hydroelectric project, which has attracted further mass protests this week.
The President, however, claimed that the scheme would offer a clean solution to the production of cheap energy for local users. His claims were met with protest inside the Congress, as opposition members unfurled a large banner reading ‘No to Hidroaysen. Patagonia without Dams’.
The response to the action was mixed, with UDI deputy José Antonio Kast criticising it as a ‘sad spectacle’. The presidential address was reportedly interrupted seven times and police are thought to have ejected 17 people from the audience.
Emphasising the Government’s achievements and future plans with regards to the economy, post-earthquake reconstruction, health and education, Piñera called for unity in the pursuit of development over the next decade and said that ‘the seeds of division and the virus of belligerence’ would impede political dialogue.
Critics of Piñera have called the presidential speech as ‘self’congratulatory’ and have disputed Piñera’s claims to success, arguing that the President has appropriated projects begun under previous left-wing Concertación administrations.
On the streets of Valparaíso, trade unionists, students and environmentalists gathered in protest. As the President concluded his speech, attempts were reportedly made to break police lines around the National Congress. Police responded with tear gas and water cannons; confrontations ended with at least 22 people injured, in addition to 70 arrests.