Protesters throw fruit at Chile’s rescued miners

COPIAPO, Chile — It has been a bittersweet anniversary for Chile’s rescued miners, who were honored as heroes in their home town only to come under attack by anti-government protesters who threw fruit and small stones at them, accusing them of being ungrateful, greedy sellouts.

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and his ministers joined most of the 33 miners Friday at a Catholic Mass and then for the inauguration of a regional museum exhibit recognizing their remarkable survival story.

But the events were marred by scuffles between riot police and protesting students, teachers, environmentalists and other miners, all trying to pressure Pinera to accede to their demands on reforming public education, increasing miners’ pay and stopping controversial dams and power plants.

Some of the activists threw oranges and apples at the miners, accusing them of getting too cozy with Pinera’s government and trying to cash in on their fame. Other activists shouted that the miners were trying to get rich with their $17 million lawsuit accusing Chile’s mine regulator of failing to enforce safety requirements.

The treatment shocked rescued miner Omar Reygadas. His son said in an interview that his father was deeply hurt by accusations of selling out to the government.

“My father was saddened, deeply saddened,” said Reygadas’s son, also named Omar Reygadas. “When I got home, I found him sitting alone, very sad. I asked him what happened, and at first he wouldn’t say anything, but gradually he let on.”

Some Chilean newspapers called the attack a low blow, particularly because many of the miners still suffer from psychological problems after being trapped underground for 69 days.

“We have become accustomed to judging the 33 of Atacama, forgetting that they’ve only been victims of the terrible circumstances that confront hundreds of Chileans every day,” El Diario de Atacama, Copiapo’s hometown newspaper, wrote Saturday.

The miners were clearly grateful for Pinera’s leadership of the rescue mission, which succeeded in bringing them all out alive more than two months after the Aug. 5, 2010, collapse. “I wouldn’t be here talking with you today” if Pinera hadn’t become personally involved, miner Jose Fuentes said.

But Pinera’s ministers are defending the government against the miners’ lawsuit, saying they have to protect Chilean taxpayers.

Pinera’s popularity has plunged to 26 percent, the lowest of any president since Chile recovered its democracy in 1990, as protests have roiled the country. Environmentalists hope to block hydroelectric dams in southern Patagonia and a huge coal-fired power plant in northern Chile. Unionized miners have briefly paralyzed the nation’s largest copper mines, costing companies millions in lost production. Mapuche Indians have occupied ancestral lands, setting off violent confrontations with police and landowners. Striking high school and university students have stopped classes for more than two months.

At the museum Friday, Pinera appealed for an end to the unrest.

“The time of the protests, the strikes, the takeovers, the violence has passed. Now has come the time to construct and not keep destroying,” he said.



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