Chile President faces protests a year after quake

President Sebastian Pinera marked Sunday's anniversary of one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history by praising his government's progress on reconstruction and calling for national unity.

Instead, his political opponents staged protests and questioned his numbers.

The magnitude-8.8 quake killed 524 people and left 31 missing last Feb. 27, causing $30 billion in damage across central Chile as it destroyed hospitals and schools, rendered roads impassable and left some 220,000 families homeless.

A year later, Chile has repaired more than 200 bridges, rebuilt major highways and restored all its lost classrooms and hospital beds, although many remain in temporary structures. Thousands of families still live in camps of flimsy wooden emergency shacks without running water, sharing bathrooms and suffering in poor weather.

"We still have a long road to reconstruct," Pinera acknowledged during a riverfront ceremony in coastal Constitution.

Dozens of protesters with Chilean flags and black balloons — similar to other protests in the disaster zone — were kept a short distance away.

Late Sunday night, a strong earthquake shook Chile's coast, alarming residents on the anniversary of the massive quake but apparently causing no damage, according to local media. Reports on its magnitude ranged from 5.8 to 6.0. A steady stream of temblors have rattled Chile since the giant quake a year ago.

Constitucion was one of the cities most damaged by the quake-spawned tsunami, which pushed walls of water 26 feet (8 meters) high into the center of town. About 100 people camping on an island in the mouth of the Maule River were trapped and drowned. Only those who managed to climb high in the trees or keep afloat for hours in the wreckage survived.

Despite Pinera's calls for unity, the opposition declined to participate in Sunday's ceremonies, questioning his estimate that 60 percent of the job is done.

"We all know this is false," said Carolina Toha, president of one of four opposition parties in the center-left coalition that governed Chile for 20 years before Pinera brought a center-right alliance into power last year.

The government has approved about 135,000 applications for housing subsidies, but the president of Chile's association of cities, Claudio Arriagada, said only 1 percent have been able to use them to secure new housing.

"We are ready to respond favorably to this call for unity by the president," Socialist Party president Osvaldo Andrade said, but under two conditions — that he increase citizen participation in the recovery and not present falsehoods to the public.

Pinera also repeated his criticism of the previous government, which failed to issue a timely tsunami alert. His predecessor, Michelle Bachelet, responded in an interview with Chile's Radio Cooperativa on Sunday, saying she hopes "the president will govern and not always search the past for people to blame."

Quake survivors also have criticized the pace of the reconstruction — and Pinera said he has heard them.

"We know we're running behind," he acknowledged recently.

While the government has provided about 70,000 temporary houses, "we still have about 120,000 to 130,000 vulnerable families who lost their homes and have not been able to find a permanent home," Pinera said.