Chile’s president gave his state of the nation speech on Saturday facing catcalls from opposition lawmakers and spectators, while protesters clashed with police outside in a second day of anti-government demonstrations fueled by anger over plans to dam two pristine rivers.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera spoke for just under two hours about his administration’s work during last year, keeping to his prepared text and making no stops while critics shouted inside the legislative chamber in the port of Valparaiso.
When he referred to his government’s environmental policy, opposition legislators spread out a banner reading: “Patagonia without dams. No to HidroAysen.”
That referred to a US$7 billion hydroelectric project approved on May 9 that calls for putting five dams on two wild rivers in the southern Patagonia region, a nearly roadless area of Andean glaciers and deep green valleys and fjords leading down to the Pacific Ocean.
The proposal is strongly opposed by environmentalists and others. Their anger has led to several big demonstrations, including one by tens of thousands on Friday night in the capital of Santiago that ended in fighting between masked protesters and police.
Violence broke out again on Saturday after about 10,000 demonstrators marched to the Congress building in Valparaiso. As most of the protesters started to leave, some threw rocks at police. Police responded with tear gas and water cannons, eventually chasing off the protesters.
Officials said two civilians and one police officer were injured. Police said they arrested 31 people in the street clashes and detained 16 people in the legislative gallery.
The government, business groups and economists say Chile needs the HidroAysen dams to generate electricity critical for the continued growth of its strong economy. They say the country needs to double its electricity production over the next decade.
Environmentalists say HidroAysen will ruin Patagonia and are urging the government to look instead to increase the amount of power obtained from renewable sources, such as solar and geothermal energy.