Protests erupt in Chile on eve of lawmaker vote to allow pension withdrawal

SANTIAGO, July 15 (Reuters) - Protesters in Santiago defied a citywide lockdown meant to combat the spread of the coronavirus, barricading roads and looting early into the morning on Wednesday in support of a proposal to allow Chileans to withdraw part of their pensions amid the crisis.

The unrest comes just hours before debate begins anew over the bill, which would grant citizens access to 10% of their retirement savings under Chile's Pension Fund Administrators (AFP) system. A similar plan for a 25% drawdown was approved in Peru in April.

Messages across social media promoting the protests touted the slogan "I want my 10%!", and Chileans banged pots from balconies across the city and throughout the country to show their support for the proposal.

The plan, backed by 83% of Chileans in a July Cadem poll, passed an initial lower house vote last week with support from 13 ruling coalition lawmakers.

The country´s pension system, which has been critiqued for low payouts, was at the center of mass protests late last year in Chile. The unrest, the most violent since the country’s return to democracy in 1990, plunged Santiago and much of Chile into chaos and wrought billions in damages and losses.

Chile's President Sebastian Pinera on Tuesday widened emergency support for middle-class citizens hit by economic hardship amid the pandemic in a last-ditch effort to head off the legislation allowing Chileans to tap their pension funds.

Pinera´s administration has argued the proposal is akin to an "own goal," weakening an already challenged system and hitting the poor, who are most reliant on pensions, the hardest.

Chile remains in the throes of the coronavirus outbreak, with Santiago and many major cities in the South American country´s mine-rich north currently under lockdown.

The country has confirmed nearly 320,000 cases of the virus and more than 7,000 deaths.

(Reporting by Fabian Cambero Writing by Dave Sherwood Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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