Protesters clashed violently with police in Chile’s capital on Thursday to decry President Sebastian Pinera’s policies, as a poll showed him the least popular leader in two decades since the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship.
Demonstrators led by students demanding cheaper and better state education blocked roads and lit fires as police used water cannons and tear gas to quell the latest outcry against the conservative billionaire.
Some protesters in Santiago and as far afield as Copiapo in the far north started banging pots and pans in a cacerolazo, a popular form of protest in Latin America reminiscent of Chile’s 1973 to 1990 dictatorship. The term cacerolazo was the world’s top trending topic on Twitter on Thursday night.
Television footage showed a La Polar department store in downtown Santiago ablaze amid the unrest, though firemen said it was too early to determine the cause.
Retailer La Polar is embroiled in the biggest financial scandal the country has seen in years, which has piled additional pressure on former business magnate Pinera, who critics accuse of failing on oversight.
La Polar has admitted that it unilaterally refinanced the credit of hundreds of thousands of clients.
Violence also flared in the port city of Valparaiso and the government said police detained 552 people across the country and 29 officers and two protesters were injured.
Hundreds of thousands of people have protested in Santiago and Chile’s other main cities in recent weeks and miners and environmentalists have rallied against Pinera, who is less than half way through his four-year term.
While Latin America’s model economy is growing strongly and is an investor magnet thanks to prudent fiscal and monetary policies, many ordinary Chileans feel they are not sharing in an economic miracle fueled by high copper prices.
“It’s going to be very difficult for Pinera to pass legislation and to advance his agenda,” said Patricio Navia, a political scientist at New York University. “Because he is so unpopular, people are going to start talking about who’s going to be president next, and that’s going to make Pinera a little bit of a lame duck.”
The slide in support will likely delay the passage of capital market reforms aimed at turning Chile into a financial hub to rival Brazil, Navia said. Strong institutions mean Pinera’s presidency itself is seen as safe.
Pinera, who took power a year and a half ago and appointed a Cabinet filled with technocrats in a perceived bid to make government run like a business, has alienated many Chileans with his policies.
Pollster CEP said on Thursday just 26 percent of Chileans approved of his leadership of the world’s top copper producer.
“The government are liars. They just want to profit from us,” said Matias Moreno, a 17-year-old business management student said, clutching a lemon used to tame the effects of tear gas as he protested in central Santiago on Thursday.
Workers at Chile’s state copper giant Codelco have also mobilized against a management revamp, and the social unrest has emboldened workers at the private Escondida mine, the world’s biggest, to strike over wage demands.
Pinera has already had to backtrack on a campaign pledge to allow private investment in Codelco. He has also sought to defuse protests by proposing a US$4 billion fund for higher education — which students said did not go far enough.