SANTIAGO – The Chilean government on Wednesday reaffirmed its willingness to engage in dialogue and said that it is ready to “make more flexible” the price hikes for natural gas in the southern region of Magallanes, where two people have died in protests against the increase.
“We’re open to making the measure for the rise in gas more flexible,” government spokesperson Ena Von Baer said. “The dialogue table is available; we’re continuing with the stance that the only way is to move closer to each other through dialogue.”
“All this can be accomplished if all the different actors show an openness to dialogue, show flexibility and don’t go down the road of violence and strikes,” she told reporters.
She said, however, that being more flexible on the gas price hike does not mean canceling it.
Magallenes is the only Chilean region that produces natural gas and residents of the area, where the temperature rarely rises above 15 C (59 F) even in summer, have long benefited from subsidized prices for the fuel.
After the government’s decision to increase by 16.8 percent the price of natural gas in Magallanes, the local community mobilized itself via the Citizens Assembly, which called a general strike beginning Wednesday.
The government justifies the price hike by saying that it is necessary to guarantee investment and cites forecasts that the Magallanes gas reserves will be exhausted by 2017 if the price remains at current levels.
The general strike began in Punta Arenas on Tuesday night with incidents in which two women who were at a barricade died and a 2-year-old child was seriously injured upon being run over by a pickup truck whose driver fled and remains a fugitive.
In addition, 31 people were arrested and five police vehicles were damaged.
Despite Von Baer’s remarks, Citizens Assembly leader Jose Hernandez told Efe that the government had not contacted the organization to begin a dialogue, while regional administrator Liliana Kusanovic acknowledged that talks have yet to begin.
Deputy Interior Minister Rodrigo Ubilla arrived Wednesday in Punta Arenas, 2,300 kilometers (1,426 miles) from Santiago, where he called on residents to reflect on the situation and avoid violence.
The organizers of the general strike, which has the support of the area’s mayors, lawmakers and Catholic clerics, “have to assume that forces are generated that oftentimes cannot be controlled,” Ubilla said in comments to Radio Bio Bio.
The general strike “is a big success and we’re going to continue until the government delivers the response that we have requested regarding not making the gas increase effective,” assembly leader Hernandez said.
He said that the ferries to Tierra del Fuego are not operating, that the Punta Arenas airport is open but cannot be accessed by vehicle, that the routes to Puerto Natales and to Las Torres del Paine are closed and that the business community has closed its doors. EFE