Chile to amend constitution, a key demand of protesters

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The Chilean government is in the process of preparing "a draft amendment of the constitution," President Sebastian Pinera has said

Chile has announced it will move to draft a new constitution and replace one dating back to the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship -- a key demand of protesters who have rocked the country for three weeks.

The new constitution will be drafted by a body called a constituent assembly and then put to a referendum for ratification, Interior Minister Gonzalo Blumel said Sunday.

Blumel made the announcement after meeting with a coalition of center-right and right-wing parties, which had been reluctant to change the constitution inherited from the era of the US-backed general Pinochet (1973-1990).

The government was in the process of preparing "a draft amendment of the constitution," President Sebastian Pinera said in an interview published Saturday by the daily El Mercurio.

Among the proposed changes are "a better definition of human rights" and their means of enforcement, plus clarification on "the obligations of the state" and "better mechanisms of participation" for citizens, added the president.

The current constitution, in force since 1980, has already undergone more than 200 changes in more than 40 articles, Pinera said.

But it does not establish the state's responsibility to provide education and healthcare -- two demands made by millions of Chileans who have taken to the streets.

Some opposition leaders reacted optimistically.

"The government is beginning to have a sense of reality," said Felipe Harboe of the opposition Party for Democracy.

A general public- sector strike began on Monday. Dozens of people protested before the presidential palace in Santiago and protests snarled traffic elsewhere in the capital.

The crisis is Chile's biggest since its return to democracy in 1990, leaving 20 dead -- five at the hands of state forces -- and more than 1,000 injured.

The unrest that began on October 18 with protests against a rise in rush-hour metro fares has mushroomed into a broader outcry against the status quo, with burning, looting and daily confrontations between demonstrators and police.

Protesters cite low wages, high costs for education and healthcare and a yawning gap between rich and poor in a country dominated politically and economically by a few elite families.

After weeks of sometimes violent demonstrations, most polls show the protest movement is supported by 75 percent of Chileans.

A slightly larger number -- 87 percent, according to a survey by pollster Cadem published this month -- say they favor the protesters' demand for constitutional reforms.

A few days after Pinera became president in March 2018, his government announced it would not allow the consideration of a bill to amend the constitution that the previous president, the socialist Michelle Bachelet (2014-2018), had submitted to congress.