Chile declares state of emergency as transit fare increase sparks violence and vandalism

Oct 19, 2019 | 9 comments

A protester watches as bus burns in Santiago.

By John Bartlett

A state of emergency has been declared in the Chilean capital after simmering protests against a rise in metro fares spilled out into widespread vandalism and violence fuelled by rising cost-of-living pressures.

As ordained by Chile’s dictatorship-era constitution, the state of emergency will apply to Santiago and can last for 15 days. It grants the government additional powers to restrict citizens’ freedom of movement and their right to assembly. Ominously, soldiers will return to the streets for the first time since an earthquake devastated parts of the country in 2010.

“The aim is to ensure public order and the safety of public and private property,” President Sebastián Piñera said in a televised address, “There will be no room for violence in a country with the rule of law at its core.”

On Friday evening, the palm trees in Santiago’s colonial Plaza de Armas were shrouded in plumes of tear gas thrown by police agents to disperse protesters, and the headquarters of Italian energy company Enel were engulfed in orange flames as the sounds of helicopters and wailing sirens filled the night sky.

Firemen fight a blaze in Santiago highrise.

Adding to the cacophony was the noise of pots and pans being banged together on balconies, a traditional cacerolazo protest.

Patricia Muñoz, Chile’s ombudsperson for the rights of minors, said: “We are incredibly concerned for the safety of those young people involved in violent confrontations with the police, but the information we are getting from the authorities is one-sided.”

Earlier, Chile’s interior minister, Andrés Chadwick, gave a brief address outside the nearby presidential palace, La Moneda, in which he confirmed that the government would apply the State Security Law. The legislation – which separate to the state of emergency – hands special powers of prosecution to authorities and has been used most frequently in relation to the Mapuche conflict since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990.

In practice the law means that heavy sentences of up to 20 years imprisonment could be handed down to those found guilty of inhibiting or damaging public services.

The latest protests follow grievances over the cost of living, specifically the costs of healthcare, education and public services. Unsatisfied by partial reforms following widespread education protests in 2011, the metro fare rise has proved the spark that has awoken Chile’s formidable student body, according to psychiatrist and writer Marco Antonio de la Parra.

“Over the past decade, the Chilean state has lost touch with these problems,” he said. “The places that have been targeted tonight are deeply symbolic: transport and energy represent the success of the state and the model it upholds.”

On top of social discontent, anger has also been directed at the Carabineros national police force, once one of the country’s most respected institutions but whose reputation has been eroded by corruption scandals and a reputation for brutality, whose heavy-handed repression of protests has also come under the spotlight.

The entity that controls the Santiago Metro network has already confirmed that there will be no service over the weekend, and the Chilean student federation has called a nationwide strike for Monday.

Credit: The Guardian,


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