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Explainer: How did protests over metro fares in Chile lead to days of violent fatal clashes?

Yesterday, a four-year-old child was killed during the latest round of protests.

chile-protests A protester returns a tear gas canister to police during clashes in Santiago, Chile Source: Miguel Arenas via PA Images

CHILE IS CURRENTLY in the midst of one of its worst crises since the end of a military dictatorship in 1990.

Yesterday, a four-year-old child was killed during the latest round of protests in the country, raising the death toll from five days of social unrest to 18. 

The violence centres around anger over living costs and social inequality. 

But what exactly kicked it off on last Friday, 18 October? 

Public transport price hikes

Violence first broke out last Friday at protests over a now scrapped hike in metro fares as demonstrators clash with riot police in the capital of Santiago.

Earlier this month, the Chilean government increase fares to €1.05 for a journey during peak hours, blaming higher energy costs and a weaker peso, according to the BBC.

The protests quickly mushroomed into a broader outcry against social and economic woes, including a yawning gap between rich and poor, in a country normally considered one of the most stable in Latin America.

On Friday, the violence escalated into the night and several metro stations were hit with Molotov cocktails.

Nearly all the 164 metro stations were attacked and 41 are destroyed, some completely charred. The whole network was shut down.

At least 16 buses were torched. The ENEL power company building and a Banco Chile branch were set on fire.

chile-protests Demonstrators use tables and doors as shields during clashed with the police in Santiago, Chile Source: Rodrigo Abd via PA Images

Around midnight, President Sebastian Pinera declared a state of emergency and deployed troops into Santiago.

The following day, Saturday, hundreds of soldiers patrol Santiago for the first time since Chile returned to democracy in 1990.

The first deaths of the protests were reported on 20 October, with two women burning to death in the early hours in a blaze at a Walmart store in Santiago. 

Police and soldiers used tear gas and water cannons against protesters in the capital, where nearly 10,000 troops and police being deployed.

Almost all public transport was paralysed in Santiago, with shops shuttered and flights cancelled.

Despite suspending the metro fare hike, Pinera told reporters: “We are at war against a powerful, implacable enemy.”

After widespread scenes of violence, destruction, arson and looting last week, protests became somewhat more peaceful this week, particularly in Santiago.

chile-protests Police detain a demonstrator during an anti-government march in Santiago on Tuesday Source: AP/PA Images

Government’s proposals

Having initially taken a confrontational line over the protests, Pinera has rapidly changed tack and sought cross-party support to find a solution.

Yesterday, the President announced a package of social measures aimed at stemming the deeping unrest. 

He said he will increase the universal basic pension by 20%, cancel a recent 9.2% increase in electricity bills and propose a law that would see the state cover the costs of expensive medical treatment.

chile-protests Chilean President Sebastián Piñera addresses the nation from La Moneda presidential palace on Monday Source: Luis Hidalgo via PA Images

Pinera pledged a state subsidy to increase the minimum wage from 301,000 to 350,000 pesos ($434) a month. 

Furthermore, he said the government would introduce health insurance for medications, which is among the most expensive in the region.

“I recognise this lack of vision and I apologize to my compatriots,” Pinera said in an address from the presidential palace in Santiago.

How has the public reacted to the proposals? 

Despite Pinera’s proposals, thousands of Chileans yesterday flooded the streets of Santiago and other cities in a general strike, as the death toll rose to 18.

Students, professors and state workers walked off the job at the urging of the country’s largest union, ignoring the package of measures announced by the president. 

In the capital Santiago, police used water cannons to disperse protesters.

Beyond the dead, another 269 people have been injured and about 1,900 have been arrested, according to the National Institute for Human Rights.

Strike organisers have issued a statement demanding that the government end the state of emergency and send troops back to their barracks.

The country’s powerful copper mine workers’ unions joined the strike movement, but the state copper company insisted that operations continued nonetheless. 

Chile is the largest producer of copper in the world, much of which is sold to China.

chile-protests Students wait to take the subway after cleaning the streets damaged by anti-government protests in Santiago yesterday Source: AP/PA Images

What happens now?

While widespread strikes took place yesterday, life in the capital has been returning to normal, with three of seven metro lines open on Wednesday. 

More than half of Santiago’s 136 metro stations suffered heavy damage during last week’s protests and remain guarded by soldiers.

Shops and businesses – even banks – appear to be reopening, but some Santiago-area schools were still closed as of yesterday.

LATAM, South America’s largest airline, said more than 98% of its flights to and from Santiago’s international airport took off following dozens of cancellations during days of chaos caused by the curfews.

The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs is urging people against using the Metro in Chile for the time being. 

It is also asking people to observe curfews where they are in place and avoid all demonstrations and protests. 

“The best help is often close at hand so if you have problems, try talking to your local contacts, tour operator representative or hotel management,” the department has said. 

Further advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs can be found here

Includes reporting by © – AFP 2019

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