Things That Matter

Two People Die As A Driver Plows His Car Through A Crowd Of Protesters In Chile

From Haiti and Puerto Rico to Ecuador and, now, Chile, communities around the world are standing up against policies that they view as contributing to growing income inequality.

After Chile’s President had announced a planned increase in public transit fares, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to announce their opposition to the plan. Chile has already been combating extreme income inequality and a growing cost of living that has outpaced wage growth, making Chile one of the most expensive Latin American countries to live in.

For many Chileans, news of a planned fare increase was one step too far.

Chile becomes the latest nation to rise up against neo-liberal policies that many feel are causing growing income inequality.

Credit: @BorisVanderSpek / Twitter

The protest by students began on Monday when hundreds of people entered several stations in Santiago, jumping over or dipping under turnstiles to protest a 4% increase in subway fares from about US$1 to US$1.16. Chile doesn’t produce its own oil and must import its fuel, leading to high prices for gasoline, electricity and elevated public transportation costs.

Officials said the hike was necessary due to the rising costs of fuel and maintenance as well as the devaluation of Chile’s peso currency.

By the end of the week the protests had turned violent with students breaking gates, shattering glass and throwing debris onto the electrified rails. The situation further deteriorated when some seven stations were set on fire, bank branches and supermarkets attacked and the country’s main electricity company headquarters building was set on fire.

On Friday, the Santiago Metro said it had stopped operating all six lines due to damage until at least Monday, stranding thousands of commuters.

The massive demonstration and police response has resulted in widespread destruction, arrests, and even death.

In response to the protests, the government deployed more than 10,500 officers to the ground and there are reports of more than 1,400 arrests.

Officials in the Santiago region said three people had died in fires at two looted supermarkets early on Sunday. Sixty Walmart-owned outlets were vandalised, and the company said many stores did not open during the day. Five more people were later found dead in the basement of a burned warehouse and were not employees, authorities said.

At least two airlines cancelled or rescheduled flights into the capital, affecting more than 1,400 passengers Sunday and Monday.

Many people were upset at the language used by the President to describe the massive resistance.

“We are at war with a powerful, relentless enemy that respects nothing or anyone and is willing to use violence and crime without any limits,” the president, Sebastián Piñera, said on Sunday in an unscheduled speech from the military headquarters.

To many, the language he used just deepened the divide between normal, every day Chileans and those with money and power. The President called protesters criminals and blamed them for clashes with military forces. His choice of words seemed to fan the flames of resistance and empowered those already on the streets.

Meanwhile, the President himself is a billionaire conservative who served as president between 2010 and 2014 before taking office again in March 2018, is facing the worst crisis of his second term.

On Saturday night, he announced he was cancelling a subway fare rise imposed two weeks ago. 

After meeting the heads of the legislature and judicial system earlier on Sunday, Piñera said they discussed solutions to the crisis and that he aimed “to reduce excessive inequalities, inequities abuses, that persist in our society”.

Jaime Quintana, the president of the senate, said “the political world must take responsibility for how we have come to this situation”.

However, the protests don’t seem to be slowing down.

Monday is likely to see a resumption of the protests seen over the weekend, with many banks, schools, and shops expected to remain closed.

Authorities said just one line of the city’s metro was expected to reopen Monday after the entire system was closed Friday because of the damage caused during the protests.

Pinera has appealed for calm. During his televised address on Sunday, he said there were good reasons to take to the streets, but asked for those doing so “to demonstrate peacefully” adding that “nobody has the right to act with brutal criminal violence.”

But Pinera’s appeal may have come too late.

“The protests are more than just about fare increase,” Boris Van Der Spek, founder of the independent news website Chile Today, told Al Jazeera. “It is about the cost of living and the level of inequality in the country. There is so much discontent in Chile. This was always going to happen one way or another.”

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