Chileans clang pots, rally in Santiago to mark anniversary of 2019 protests

SANTIAGO, Oct 18 (Reuters) - Thousands of Chileans gathered in the central square of the capital, Santiago, on Sunday, clanging pots, cheering and chanting to mark the one-year anniversary of mass protests over inequality that left more than 30 dead and thousands injured.

Protesters gathered early in the day in largely peaceful rallies downtown under bright, cloudless skies of the Southern Hemisphere spring. Many touted signs and brightly colored homemade banners calling for a “yes” vote next Sunday in a referendum over whether to scrap the country’s dicatatorship-era Constitution, a key demand of the 2019 protests.

Last year’s demonstrations, which began last Oct. 18, raged until mid-December as Chileans gathered nationwide to call for reforms to the pension, healthcare and education systems. The unrest, rioting and looting resulted in the military taking to the streets for the first time since the rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet.

By late afternoon on Sunday, Santiago’s Plaza Italia had begun to fill but the protest was markedly smaller, and more pacific, than the largest of last year’s rallies. Chile’s police, which have come under fire by human rights groups for their fierce response to the 2019 demonstrations, could be seen watching from the fringes of the square.

Local media reported scattered incidents of violence, vandalism and clashes with protesters throughout the day, but police response remained largely subdued.

In the past few days, small-scale protests and isolated incidents of violence have resurfaced in Chile, as the capital’s 6 million citizens emerge from months of confinement following the coronavirus pandemic. Most protesters on Sunday wore masks, but many could be seen in tight groups, raising concerns about a potential health risk.

Center-right President Sebastian Pinera, whose popularity has plunged following the 2019 protests, met with members of his Cabinet and security advisers early in the day but was not expected to speak. (Reporting by Dave Sherwood in Santiago Editing by Matthew Lewis)