The spark that triggered the protests in Santiago de Chile was an increase in the price of the metro. The rise from 800 to 830 pesos at peak times came after a government announcement of a 9.2 per cent hike in water and electricity costs. With rising rents, a crumbling public health system and stagnating wages – the minimum wage is 301,000 pesos a month – living conditions for many Chileans are becoming untenable.
Catalina Peralta is a schoolteacher. She told me she was protesting ‘because I think that people in general – and me in particular – are sick of the abuses and the rise in the cost of everything in our country. The problem is that they raise the price of everything but we – the average workers – are still being paid the same and clearly that is an abuse at the end of the day because the inequality in salaries here is too much.’
President Sebastián Piñera announced a state of emergency, putting General Javier Iturriaga del Campo in charge of public security. Iturriaga is the son of General Dante Iturriaga Marcheese, accused of involvement in transporting citizens to a detention and torture facility during the Pinochet dictatorship.
Piñera, a billionaire businessman before he entered politics, came to power in 2010 as the first conservative president since the fall of Pinochet. He left office in 2014 – the constitution prevents presidents from serving consecutive terms ¬– but stood again years later. His platform in the 2017 election campaign focused on reducing crime and boosting the economy, with a focus on consolidating Chile’s middle classes. In practice, his policy of reducing public spending means that access to healthcare and higher education remains out of reach for the poor. There were protests earlier this year over low pensions.
In spite of reported economic growth, Chile remains the most unequal of the OECD countries. According to a recent report, 38 per cent of Chileans ‘find it difficult or very difficult to live on their current income’. In February it emerged that supermarkets, including Cencosud and Walmart, were involved in price fixing. Pharmacies have been accused of colluding with private healthcare providers to incentivise doctors to prescribe certain medications. Supermarkets and pharmacies have been looters’ main targets in the current protests.
The cacerolazo (‘cooking pot banging’) form of demonstration began in Chile in the early 1970s. It allowed people to protest from the relative safety of their homes. The increasing violence of the police response to protests in Chile has seen a return to the cacerolazo. Much of the media coverage has described the protests as a student movement but, though the youth of Santiago started the backlash against the fare hike, this cacerolazo is much broader than that, involving public and private-sector workers from a cross-section of society. Dock workers and miners have joined the protests. On Wednesday there was a nationwide strike.
People have had enough of a political class that heavily favours private business interests. In 2015, the holding company Grupo Penta and politicians from the far-right UDI party were convicted for tax fraud. The company directors escaped prison sentences; they were ordered to attend ethics classes instead. Last year, a former police chief was linked to the embezzlement of 26.7 billion pesos (around £24 million), though no charges were brought. He was also investigated for ordering the lethal torture of a student.
When the protests began, the president described the demonstrators as vandals and delinquents, justifying the use of force to restore law and order. Protesters in Plaza Italia on Saturday 19 October were met with tanks and tear gas. There have been several cases of tear gas being fired at close range, resulting in serious injury, as well as the use of rubber bullets and lead pellets. Videos are circulating on social media that show protesters being dragged and beaten by the police, and minors being assaulted during the protests at colleges in the city centre.
At least 18 people have died, more than 500 have been injured and more than 2400 arrested, including 200 minors. There have been huge assemblies across the country, with protests in Chillán, San Pedro de Atacama and Valparaíso. In Santiago’s Barrio Yungay on Monday, local organisers held a neighbourhood assembly that culminated in a march through the streets; their primary demands were the withdrawal of the military from the streets and an end to the state of emergency. A crowd remained in Plaza Brasil after the march, in defiance of the curfew, setting light barricades and playing Victor Jara’s ‘The Right to Live in Peace’.
The tone of Piñera’s speeches has changed: ‘I know I have spoken harshly at times,’ he conceded. He has acknowledged a number of the grievances raised in the protests, from the price of medicine to low pensions and poor salaries, but stopped short of accepting responsibility for the policies that have led to this point. ‘We are going to have to rebuild.’
The demonstration gathering this afternoon in Plaza Italia looks set to be the largest in Chile’s history.