Chile president names Pinochet relative as minister

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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.