Chile unrest spreads as Piñera backs down on price rises
Civil unrest spread in Chile on Sunday despite President Sebastián Piñera’s decision to suspend planned metro price rises that had triggered protests with demonstrators looting shops, burning buses and firebombing an energy company’s headquarters.
Authorities declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew around the capital Santiago for the second night running after riot police resorted to tear gas to quell several days of increasingly violent protests. A total of 716 Chileans have been arrested and security forces have opened fire on looters.
“I have listened with humility to the voice of my compatriots,” said Mr Piñera on Saturday evening, announcing a policy U-turn that analysts doubted would be enough to defuse the protests. Many are comparing them to the “gilets jaunes” movement that erupted in France last year.
Announcing a law to review how metro prices were calculated, Mr Piñera said all citizens had a right to demonstrate peacefully.
“They have good reasons to do so,” he said. “But no one has the right to act with the brutal and criminal violence of those that have destroyed, burnt or damaged more than 78 metro stations in Santiago.”
One of Latin America’s wealthiest and most stable countries, Chile had long been considered immune to the kind of angry, anti-austerity protests which have characterised other nations in the region, most recently Ecuador. But, amid widespread anger over rising living costs, a rise in fares on the Santiago metro system earlier this month proved the last straw.
Mr Piñera announced emergency measures in a brief broadcast from La Moneda presidential palace early on Saturday. He said the “serious and repeated attacks” of the previous days had left him no alternative but to make use of the emergency powers granted him under Chile’s constitution, which dates back to the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.
“The objective is very simple and very profound: to ensure public order, to ensure peace for the inhabitants of Santiago,” said Mr Piñera, a centre-right billionaire now in the second year of his second term in office.
Attacking the violent demonstrators as “true delinquents who do not respect anything” and promising to punish them with a special state security law, he also promised that his government would begin a dialogue in the coming days to listen to the concerns of those most affected by the price rise.
Television pictures showed armoured vehicles patrolling the streets of Santiago, scenes not seen in Chile since the Pinochet dictatorship, which lasted from 1973 to 1990.
The protests began after the government imposed a sharp increase in the price of metro tickets, saying that the devaluation of the peso and rising energy costs meant it could not afford ever-higher subsidies.
Demonstrations grew in size and scale over the course of the week. Protesters jumped turnstiles and dangled their feet over the edge of platforms to halt trains on the metro system, one of Latin America’s largest and most modern with 136 stations and 87 miles of track.
During Friday’s protests a group attacked the headquarters of Enel Chile, the local subsidiary of Italian energy giant Enel and Chile’s largest private electricity company. The group also set fire to several metro stations and threw stones at police. Enel Chile said it had evacuated workers from the building safely and there were no injuries.
Since the student protests of 2011-13 that marred Mr Piñera’s first presidency, few issues have angered the public so much as the recent rises in public transport prices, which are expensive compared to average wages.
“This was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Robert Funk, a political scientist at the University of Chile. He argued that the government had failed to respond when the students started invading metro stations earlier in the week.
It quickly grew out of control, forcing authorities to close one line on Friday, and eventually the whole system.
“Police were slow to respond. The government was caught completely off guard, not only in terms of the public security response, but also in terms of a more political response to the demands,” added Mr Funk.
The state of emergency aimed at restoring order appears to have further inflamed public sentiment, which remains scarred by the experience of the Pinochet dictatorship. But, for now, the government is showing no signs of backing down.
Considered one of Latin America’s most investor-friendly presidents, Mr Piñera has seen his attempts to boost growth by promoting reforms in tax, pension and labour laws bogged down in Congress, where he lacks a majority. Nonetheless Chile is forecast to grow by just under three per cent this year, well above the average for Latin America.