By María M.Mur
Valparaíso, Chile, Jun 1 (EFE).- Cornered first by mass protests in the country and then by the devastating coronavirus epidemic, the president of Chile on Tuesday asked for “forgiveness” for his mistakes and in a surprising move, announced his support for same-sex marriage.
In his annual State of the Union address in congress lasting more than an hour and a half, Sebastián Piñera reviewed some of his achievements, but also acknowledged mistakes, especially in the handling of the pandemic, which has already left nearly 1.4 million infected and 29,300 dead and has plunged the country into a severe economic crisis.
“Undoubtedly, we have made mistakes. Many people have felt anger and frustration for not always receiving the help they needed at the right time and we ask them for forgiveness,” said the president, who has been in office since March 2018 for a period of four years.
“We accept the criticisms and recognize our mistakes,” added Piñera, who recalled that a total of $20 billion has been allocated to provide direct aid to families, “which represents more than a quarter of last year’s total public spending.”
Despite its successful vaccination rollout, Chile has been experiencing a second wave since March, which has led more than 90 percent of the population to be placed under lockdown until May and sounded the death knell for thousands of businesses that had managed to survive in 2020, when the economy contracted by 5.8 percent.
The president also said that the vaccine is the main way out of the crisis and that to get vaccinated is “an act of solidarity” and not to do so “an act of irresponsibility.”
With 52.7 percent of the target population (15 million people) vaccinated with the two doses of the vaccine, Chile is the country with the second highest percentage of population vaccinated, behind Israel, mainly with China’s Coronavac, approved on Tuesday by the World Health Organization.
Piñera also acknowledged his faults with respect to the long and bitter conflict between the Mapuche people and landowners in the south.
“We have not managed to make progress as we should in dialog and controlling the violence,” he said, while admitting that human rights violations were committed during the protests of 2019.
In late 2019, Chile experienced the most serious social crisis since the end of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), which began as a protest against a hike in metro fares and soon turned into a revolt for a more just economic model, resulting in some 30 deaths and thousands injured and arrested.
The country’s parliament is debating a bill to pardon those who were arrested during the protests, something which the government opposes.
“In Chile there are no political prisoners, no one is imprisoned because of what they think,” said the president, who announced the creation of a Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office to prevent future violations.
But it was Piñera’s support for same-sex marriage that eclipsed all other announcements.
Currently, same-sex couples in the country can register for a Civil Union Agreement under a legislation passed in 2015 that confers some legal benefits
“We must delve into the value of freedom, including the freedom to love and form a family with the loved one (…) I think the time has come for marriage equality in our country,” said the 71-year-old Catholic president.
The announcement sent shockwaves through right-wing parties forming the governing coalition, especially in the ranks of the ultra-conservative UDI and RN.
“When (Piñera) was on the campaign trail, he said loud and clear that he was going to strengthen and improve civil union for same-sex couples, but he never talked about marriage. It is a lack of respect and a tremendous betrayal for the Christian world,” the pro-government and evangelical lawmaker Leonidas Romero lamented on Twitter.
The president said that he will grant “urgency” to a bill that has been under discussion in parliament since 2017 and which, if passed, would make Chile the eighth Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage. EFE