One Dead in Chile After Protesters Set Fires During President's State-of-the-Nation Speech

Masked demonstrators torched a pharmacy and a supermarket as President Michelle Bachelet delivered her annual report to the Chilean congress.
May 21, 2016, 8:40pm
Photo by Mario Ruiz/EPA

Violent protests in Chile left one person dead on Saturday as President Michelle Bachelet delivered her annual State of the Nation report to Congress.

Demonstrators — including many who wore masks — torched a pharmacy and a supermarket in Valparaiso, where the Chilean congress is headquartered. A security guard inside one of the buildings that caught fire reportedly died from asphyxiation.

Footage from the protests showed huge plumes of black smoke billowing out of buildings as protesters wearing gas masks and wielding wooden poles clashed with police. Some demonstrators could be seen throwing rocks and other debris as police tried to use a vehicle equipped with a water cannon to extinguish the blaze.

"Nothing can justify the actions we witnessed today and that led to the death of an innocent worker by these delinquents who hid in civic demonstrations," Marcelo Diaz, the chief of Bachelet's cabinet, told AFP.

Bachelet expressed her condolences and condemned "the violence of those who do not respect democracy" in a statement posted on Twitter.

@alegriagonzaa
[11:04] #Valparaiso Incendio de farmacia en Pedro Montt (@marcelotreras) pic.twitter.com/CASLrs20d5
— Red de Emergencia (@reddeemergencia) May 21, 2016

The annual speech by the Chilean president to the congress in the port city usually incites clashes between protesters and security forces, and this year was no different.The protests reportedly started out peacefully, but descended into violence as the day wore on.

Related: Violence Between Landowners and Chile's Indigenous Is Only Getting Worse

Police fired tear gas and used water cannons to disperse the demonstrators. Photos posted on Twitter showed fires in multiple locations across the city, and firemen attempting to put out the flames while masked protesters flung rocks and other items

Valparaíso, 21 de Mayo de 2016.
Bomberos siendo atacados por todos lados. El pago de Chile. — E.T. (@nefta_lorca)May 21, 2016

Siguen los disturbios en marcha Valparaíso. — Patricio Andrade (@expatodelagente)May 21, 2016

Marcha a esta hora en calle Pedro Montt — Patricio Andrade (@expatodelagente)May 21, 2016

In her speech, Bachelet said that some of her proposed reforms would have to wait because of the economic slowdown and tepid political support, but she pledged to push changes to the pension and education systems.

It's Bachelet's last full year in office before elections in 2017. She said she's preparing legislation that would gradually make university education free and would work to hasten creation of a state pension fund.

Related: Chile Takes Its First Step Towards Easing Pinochet's Total Ban on Abortion

Bachelet praised talks on a new constitution to replace one implemented by the country's former dictator Augusto Pinochet. Bachelet was elected in a landslide in 2013 for a second non-consecutive term on pledges to reduce sharp inequality with an ambitious set of wide-ranging reforms paid for by tax hikes.

Her approval ratings halved from over 50 percent when she took office in March 2014 to around 25 percent by the end of 2015. She commands a narrow majority in both houses of Congress, but is struggling to meet demands of her coalition, which ranges from centrist Christian Democrats to Communists.

The right-wing opposition remains unpopular, but changes to the electoral system last year are encouraging a proliferation of new parties that can tap into dissent.

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