Chile: State Of Emergency

As authorities struggled to placate protests that have erupted in Chile, President Pinera has declared a state of emergency in Santiago – the capital city. It has been reported that 11 people have since been killed amidst the ensuing violence. The discord began initially after the increase of a (now suspended) metro fare, but has since spread to reflect the anger about other costs of living and inequalities between the rich and poor.

As arson and looting got out of control, police used tear gas and water cannons to implement order, with curfews being issued in the major cities. The 15-day-state of emergency will aim to restrict freedom of movement.

It is the first time since 1990, during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, that troops were deployed to the streets.

The root of the protests

Compared to others in the region, the South American nation has one of the highest per capita income at $20,000, with an expected growth of 2.5 per cent this year. Yet, despite being one of Latin America’s more wealthy countries, there is a great disparity between the working class and the elite in Chile.

The unrest was sparked because of an increase in metro fares from 800 pesos to 830 pesos ($1.13 to $1.17) for peak-time travel, after an already 20-peso hike back in January.

This, along with the rising costs of living and the privatisation of education and healthcare – which affects the marginalised poorer population the most – thousands took to the street to vent their anger.

“This is not a simple protest over the rise of metro fares, this is an outpouring for years of oppression that have hit mainly the poorest,” Karina Sepulveda, an anthropology student, told Reuters at a protest in Santiago.

“The illusion of the model Chile is over. Low wages, lack of healthcare and bad pensions have made people tired.” 

The violence that unfolded

On Sunday, the burnt bodies of five people were found in a garment factory on the outskirts of Santiago, which had been set on fire by demonstrators. Two women also died after another store, which was owned by Walmart, was purposely set ablaze in the riots. Another victim succumbed to her injuries after sustaining 75% burns on her body.

Interior and Security Minister Andres Chadwick told a press conference in the capital Santiago that the decision to extend the emergency measure came amid an “escalation of violence and vandalism,” two weeks after protests led by students began over fare hikes on public transport.

He cited 70 incidents of “serious incidents of violence” on Sunday, including 40 lootings of supermarkets and other businesses, and said military and police numbers were at 10,500 in Santiago and would be reinforced where necessary. He also added that over 1,400 arrests has been made.

“We are facing a real escalation that is undoubtedly organised to cause serious damage to our country and the lives of each of its citizens,” he said.

Throughout Sunday, buses, subway stations, supermarkets, and various buildings continued to be set on fire as rioters clashed with the police. By nightfall, curfews had been imposed on the cities of Santiago, Valparaíso, Coquimbo and Biobío, while a state of emergency was applied to Antofagasta, Valparaíso, Valdivia, Chillán, Talca, Temuco and Punta Arenas.

President Pinera’s response

President Pinera told the nation in a televised address, “Democracy not only has the right, it has the obligation to defend itself using all the instruments that democracy itself provides, and the rule of law to combat those who want to destroy it.

“We are at war against a powerful enemy, who is willing to use violence without any limits.”

BBC News Online Latin America editor, Vanessa Buschschlüter, believed that his response might simply add fuel to the already dangerously burning flames. She said that while some of the footage of violent clashes between the security forces and protesters do resemble those coming out of a war zone, other reactions to Piñera’s description has been scathing with opposition politicians calling it “pathetic” and “irresponsible”.

“More important is the effect those words have had on the protesters. If they already felt ignored by the government, President Piñera labelling them as criminals in their eyes proves how little he cares about their concerns,” she told the BBC.

“With the protest movement gaining momentum while still lacking clear leaders and Mr Piñera’s language further stoking the flames, the chance of any meaningful dialogue seems to slip further away.”