SANTIAGO – Chilean President Sebastián Piñera received fierce criticism on Friday after photos appeared of him strolling around Plaza Italia and getting photographed in front of the General Baquedano monument. The square and monument were the epicenter of the protest movement that was interrupted by the coronavirus outbreak in Chile. The Chilean opposition has responded with fury.
While in Chile the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths grows by the day, President Sebastián Piñera was spotted on Friday afternoon in front of the Baquedano monument on Plaza Italia. He sat down in front of what has become a symbol of the protest movement in Chile – with a clear #FueraPiñera (#PiñeraOut) tag painted next to him – in what many consider to be a huge provocation amid a worsening health crisis.
Plaza Italia was the square were people gathered several times a week to march against abuses and for a new Chile. The square was later dubbed Dignity Square or Plaza de la Dignidad by protesters. Because of the coronavirus outbreak and the fact that the square lies in a quarantined part of Santiago, marches have stopped.
After the photo took the internet by storm, the president was quick to explain on Twitter that he had only stepped out of his car to greet members of the police and military. Footage indicates otherwise: there were few, if any, police officers safeguarding the square and after the president got photographed in front of the monument, he continued on his way. “I regret my action was misinterpreted,” the president wrote.
Hoy, regresando a mi casa, pasé por Plaza Baquedano, me bajé un par de minutos a saludar a un grupo de Carabineros y Militares que ayudaban a dirigir el tránsito, me saqué una foto y continué mi camino. Lamento si esta acción pudo malinterpretarse.
— Sebastian Piñera (@sebastianpinera) April 3, 2020
Piñera and the Protest Movement in Chile
The protest movement in Chile has had an everlasting impact on the presidency of Sebastián Piñera. Due to his link to human rights violations in the country, the Chilean opposition filed a constitutional accusation against him (which was voted down in Congress). Piñera was pressured to announce reforms, reshuffle his cabinet, and announce a referendum on a new Constitution for Chile, which was to be held this April. The coronavirus outbreak forced the authorities to postpone the referendum to Oct. 25. Meanwhile, his approval ratings plummeted to a historic low of 6 percent while the tag #FueraPiñera now covers walls across the country.
After the footage of Piñera visiting Plaza Italia appeared on social media, political factors were quick to condemn his actions. Senator Alejandro Guillier, who as presidential candidate was defeated by Piñera during the latest elections, wrote: “You, who in these difficult times asks for unity, are dedicated to provoking the vast majority of Chileans who want a fairer country by appearing on the Plaza de la Dignidad.”
Increíble! El Pdte Piñera se pasea por Plaza Italia/Dignidad mientras el gobierno pide a la gente q se quede en casa, Esta es una provocación e irresponsabilidad, impropia para un jefe de estado en plena crisis de pandemia, q divide al país en momento en q se requiere unidad.
— Heraldo Muñoz (@HeraldoMunoz) April 4, 2020
Deputy Gabriel Boric called Piñera’s visit to the square a “despicable provocation,” while Heraldo Muñoz, president of the center-left Party for Democracy, pointed out that the country is suffering from a health crisis: “Presidet Piñera walks through Plaza Italia / Dignidad while the government asks people to stay home. This is a provocation and an irresponsibility, inappropriate for a head of state in the midst of a pandemic crisis, which divides the country at a time when unity required.”
Even far-right wing politician José Antonio Kast took to Twitter to condemn Piñera’s actions. “Inexplicable action of President Piñera in Plaza Italia. He should have exercised his authority when the rule of law was violated, not in the midst of quarantine. The government takes not one step, but two steps back.”