Protesters mark a month that shook Chile

Santiago (AFP) –


Stone-throwing Chilean demonstrators on Monday marked a month of furious, near daily street demonstrations that have roiled the country and signalled an overhaul of the country's social and economic model.

Chanting "Chile has woken up!", around 3,000 demonstrators gathered in Santiago's Plaza Italia, the epicenter of the protests which at one point drew more than a million people onto the streets of the Chilean capital.

Some fought running battles with riot-police who used tear gas and rubber bullets against youths who threw molotov-cocktails.

"I came to commemorate a month that changed Chile forever," said Susana, a 51-year-old accountant at the protest.

"I think the government could make the changes we are demanding much faster. I don't believe Pinera," she said, referring to conservative President Sebastian Pinera.

What began with high school students refusing to pay a subway ticket hike on October 18 resulted in the deepest social crisis in the South American country since the return of democracy in 1990.

"The street has forced the entire Chilean political class to do in a few hours what it did not want to do for 30 years," said Marcelo Mella, a political scientist at the University of Santiago.

"This is proof that it was possible to do more than what has been done so far," said Mella.

The protests have forced a re-think of the conservative billionaire president's right-wing agenda.

"In the last four weeks, Chile has changed. Chileans have changed, we have all changed," Pinera said Sunday.

Lawmakers last week bowed to one of the protesters' key demands, agreeing to hold a referendum next April to change the country's dictatorship-era constitution.

However, despite forcing the elite to sit up and take notice, the most pressing problems -- revamping the pension system, quality public health and education -- remain untouched.

A weekend opinion poll showed 67 percent of Chileans see the agreement on the constitutional referendum as "positive."

With much of the heat has been taken out of the protests, demonstrators are divided between those who want to return to normality and those who want to keep up the pressure on the government, calling for faster and broader reforms.

- Dark chapter -

"The street gave a lesson to all those who, without realizing it, had replaced their hope with resignation. The people have moved the boundaries of democracy," said Catalina Perez, a lawmaker with the leftist Democratic Revolution party from the city of Antofagasta.

Replacing a constitution that resonates of a dark, repressive chapter in the country's past has been a key demand of protesters.

The current charter has been changed numerous times but has never established the state's responsibility to provide education and health care.

"The constitutional process will last two years, with several electoral milestones. This can help channel differences and moderate expectations," according to political analyst Juan Luis Monsalve.

"We are all aware that we were in a straitjacket with this hereditary and petrified Constitution," said former center-left president Ricardo Lagos, who managed to forge a broad political consensus during his 2000-2006 presidency to remove the most undemocratic articles in the constitution.

- 'Excessive' force -

Long seen as a haven of political and economic stability in volatile South America, the wave of unrest has killed 22 people.

Most died in fires during looting, but five were killed at the hands of the security forces. More than 2,000 people were wounded.

Rights groups have pointed to some 200 people who received serious eye injuries, including dozens who were blinded, by rubber bullets fired at the head by security forces.

Pinera recognized for the first time in a television address on Sunday that abuses had been committed by the police in dealing with the unrest.

"There was excessive use of force. Abuses and crimes were committed, and the rights of all were not respected," he said, ensuring that there would be "no impunity."

Accusations of police brutality and human rights violations have been levelled since the protests broke out, prompting the United Nations to send a team to investigate. Amnesty International has also sent a mission.

Since October 18, more than 15,000 arrests have taken place, including 3,500 for looting, according to a report released Monday by the police. A total of 5,300 acts of violence were perpetrated by the demonstrators.

US retailer Walmart has filed a suit against the Chilean state for damage caused to its stores, 28 of which were looted, 34 burned and 17 completely destroyed.