Chile's President Pinera removes interior, foreign, defense ministers

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Chilean President Sebastian Pinera has reshuffled key parts of his cabinet, replacing his interior chief and five other ministers, in an effort to shore up his fractious ruling coalition following a rebellion over a controversial pensions bill passed last week.

The second reshuffle in nine months of almost all of the president’s inner political circle saw a swing toward conservatism in the political affiliations of new ministers, also in the foreign, defense, social affairs, presidency and communications portfolios.

“I call on this new cabinet and all of the Chile Vamos coalition to begin a new chapter for our government and for our country, with a true constructive spirit, conviction, unity, faith and hope,” Pinera said at a swearing-in ceremony at the presidential palace in the capital Santiago.

Commentators noted the hard line of the new cabinet ministers. Alvaro Elizalde, president of Chile’s Socialist Party, said: “The president has opted for internal order, but not to win over, or try to win over, citizens.”

The reshuffle comes as the center-right president faces his toughest year in office so far, with massive social protests from October to December and the combined economic and social blow of the coronavirus outbreak, which began in March.

Last week, Chile Vamos lawmakers backed an opposition bill allowing citizens to draw down 10% of their pensions from the country’s private retirement system, something the government had staunchly opposed.

Interior Minister Gonzalo Blumel took the fall for failure to stop the pensions rebellion and was replaced by senator Víctor Perez, a member of the far-right UDI party. Perez became the third interior minister in nine months.

Billionaire Pinera is 20 months from the end of his second non-consecutive term in office. In October last year, his security forces’ heavy-handed response to the biggest protests in Chile since the end of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship in 1990 saw his approval rating fall to 6%. It has since ticked upwards to 15% but has been held down by some missteps in the handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

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