June 14, 2020 / 3:57 PM / 18 days ago

Chilean congress agrees to $12 billion emergency coronavirus plan

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile Finance Minister Ignacio Briones announced a fresh, two-year, $12 billion citizen support and economic stimulus package to overcome the effects of the coronavirus outbreak after reaching a cross-party agreement in the early hours of Sunday.

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, new Health Minister Oscar Enrique Paris and former Health Minister Jaime Manalich attend the cabinet reshuffle at the government house in Santiago, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Santiago, Chile June 13, 2020. Sebastian Rodriguez/Chile Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

Briones said Chile was experiencing a “unique moment” in its history as it faces the toughest weeks of fighting the pandemic, and that the only way out of it was through working together to offer its citizens “a sign of hope.”

The announcement comes after weeks of political infighting and criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis by medical experts, as confirmed coronavirus cases per 100,000 citizens reached global levels only surpassed by small nations like Qatar.

On Saturday, Chile President Sebastian Pinera removed the health minister, Jaime Manalich, who had been criticized for failing to implement lockdowns sooner, and for changes to case and death reporting methodology.

Medical unions and members of the citizen advisory group convened by government said they hoped for a more “consensual style” and a change of strategy from the new minister, Enrique Paris.

The economic plan, funded by a mix of budget reallocations, sovereign funds and debt issuance, includes bolstered emergency benefits for Chile’s most vulnerable families from payments of 65,000 Chilean pesos to 100,000 ($126) per person.

It will increase funding for local governments, civil society organizations and health services, and offers unemployment protection for parents and those who care for young children, Briones said.

The minister added in a statement on Twitter that behind the plan was “a permanent source of employment and income for millions of families, ventures, projects and dreams.”

The plan is the latest in a series announced by government adding up to around 5% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) that also offered loans and tax breathers to small and medium-sized businesses.

Opposition groups have said the plans do not go far enough or reach enough of the people in direst need. Chile’s far-left Democratic Revolution party, founded by leaders of the 2011 student protests, refused to agree to the latest plan.

Reporting by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Bill Berkrot

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