Chilean President Sebastian Pinera put his popular mining minister squarely in charge of solving a weeklong protest over energy prices that has paralyzed the country’s southernmost region, stranding hundreds of foreigners and costing millions in lost tourist dollars.
Pinera replaced his energy minister Sunday by adding the job to the portfolio of Mining Minister Laurence Golborne, whose warm manner and skilled management of the rescue of 33 trapped miners last year made him very popular.
Golborne flew to the regional capital of Punta Arenas on Monday on a mission to end the protests, which began over plans by state-owned National Petroleum Co to reduce local subsidies next month, raising natural gas prices by nearly 17 percent.
However, solving the energy crisis may be a much more complex challenge than extracting men from a collapsed copper mine, and Golborne — who polls suggest has the best shot at succeeding Pinera three years from now — could see his popularity plummet if he doesn’t find a solution.
The deaths of two women who were knocked into a bonfire last week when a trucker rammed through a blockade has radicalized many residents.
And Golborne lost room to maneuver when Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter on Sunday night threatened to applied the “state security” law, which could ultimately involve sending in soldiers to dismantle the blockades and jail the organizers.
Protesters have blocked all the main highways leading to the region, as well as the Punta Arenas air and seaports. They have kept people from getting off cruise ships and other boats that make port calls on the way to Antarctica or around the Strait of Magellan.
Organizers had been letting some trucks and buses get through for humanitarian reasons, but Hinzpeter’s announcement made them call for a total blockade of Punta Arenas.
Punta Arenas Mayor Vladimiro Mimica said it was like trying “to put out a fire with gasoline.”
Meanwhile, police and soldiers evacuated some 3,000 people, including foreigners, stranded in the region due to the protests.
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