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Chile president names Pinochet relative as minister

President Sebastian Pinera greets his new Minister for Women Macarena Santelices with an elbow bump at the presidential palace in Santiago, Chile
President Sebastian Pinera greets his new Minister for Women Macarena Santelices with an elbow bump at the presidential palace in Santiago, Chile Marcelo SEGURA Chilean Presidency/AFP
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Santiago (AFP)

Chile's President Sebastian Pinera waded into controversy Wednesday when he appointed a relative of former dictator Augusto Pinochet as minister for women and equality.

Human rights organizations slammed the appointment of Macarena Santelices, a grand-niece of Pinochet and a member of the right-wing UDI party that forms part of Pinera's coalition government.

Santelices also came under fire on social media for being a defender of the 1973-90 dictatorship that left some 3,000 opponents dead.

A former local TV journalist, she defended her record in her first speech as minister, denying she had ever "endorsed or justified" human rights violations.

"Having a political tendency does not mean endorsing such grave events as the violation of human rights that should be condemned, not just today, but always."

Opponents had pointed out a statement Santelices gave in a 2016 newspaper interview that quoted her as saying: "We cannot ignore the good things about the military regime."

She also served as mayor of the city of Olmue, north of Santiago, from 2012-19.

Her boldly anti-immigrant record as mayor was criticized Wednesday by rights groups.

Chile's feminist movement also blasted the appointment as a "provocation," saying Santelices had no experience or training in women's rights issues.

A nationwide curfew and social distancing measures against the coronavirus has calmed months of widespread social unrest in Chile and forced the postponement of a referendum to change the dictatorship-era constitution, a key demand of protesters.

However, experts say underlying frustration over social inequality that initially sparked the unrest last October could explode again when the measures are lifted.

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