For the first time since the end of the Pinochet regime in 1990, the government has called the military onto the streets of Santiago, the country’s capital, as that city emerges from its third consecutive night of a government-imposed curfew.
“We are at war against a powerful enemy, willing to use violence with no limits,” Chilean President Sebastián Piñera said at a news conference late Sunday, in comments that only seemed to spark more furor among protesters. He said protesters had one goal: producing as much harm as possible.
While Piñera said Saturday he would suspend a subway fare increase, that appears to have done little to satisfy crowds. A state of emergency declared in six cities is expected to expand around the country on Monday.
“This was an economic pressure cooker that’s been building for decades, and it exploded,” Rodrigo Booth, a professor at the University of Chile, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “This had little to do with public transit. It became a situation about brutal inequality.”
Over the past three decades, Chile’s neoliberal policies have made it one of South America’s wealthiest countries, with inflation under control and easy access to credit.
But those policies have also created stark economic disparities and strapped many Chileans into debt. Many basics, including water, highways and the current pension system, have been privatized.
That extends to Santiago’s subway, a modern transit system that’s the largest in South America and a point of pride for many Chileans. But repeated fare increases have jumped far ahead of wages, critics say, such that a family making minimum wage would have been forced to use one-sixth of their income on transportation alone.
Since last week, hundreds of students flooded into several stations around Santiago to hop turnstiles in protest of the increased fare. The hike raised subway tickets from the equivalent of $1.12 to about $1.16, a record high in the region. By late last week, mobs of young people were destroying stations and leaving graffiti behind.
“The fact that the Chilean people are protesting in a way that’s so spontaneous and potent means we have to seriously consider that there’s a deep wound that hasn’t healed, not even been discussed, in these past few decades,” Amalá Saint-Pierre Aguadé, a theater producer in Santiago, said in an interview with The Post.
The protests also reflect a stark generational divide between those who old enough to remember the repressive military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet — a 17-year period when dissidents were imprisoned, tortured and, in many cases, “disappeared” — and younger Chileans, who were born after its end and who have taken to the streets with far less abandon.
As subway service was suspended Friday and Piñera imposed a curfew on Santiago, the violence seemed to escalate. Over the weekend, his government dispatched 3,000 members of the military and 5,000 members of the national police force to quell demonstrations.
Videos on social media showed military officers yelling, as protesters waved signs showing photos of those who disappeared during the Pinochet dictatorship. Prominent Chileans have also taken to the streets, with one well-known actress getting shot in the face on Friday with rubber pellets. That night, Piñera was photographed having dinner at a pricey restaurant away from the crowds.
Confrontations with tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets continued through the weekend. By Sunday, Chilean Interior Minister Andrés Chadwick, said that 62 police officers and 11 civilians had been injured in the latest clashes, while nearly 1,500 people had been arrested.
Booth, the University of Chile professor, said the situation was encapsulated in a scene Sunday in the city’s central Plaza Baquedano, where public buses stopped moving as they reached dense crowds on the streets, clouded in tear gas. He went to bang on a pot — a traditional form of protest across Latin America known as a “cacerolazo” — and armed himself with lemon wedges to fight the effects of tear gas.
Within minutes, he had dispensed his wedges to pedestrians who were getting off the bus or otherwise needed to walk through the square to get home: a mother with her son, about 8 years old; an elderly woman; and a young couple with a toddler who had burst into tears.
Saint-Pierre Aguadé said it represents a kind of “Latin American spring," like the protests in the Arab world starting in 2010.
“The government is blind to believe that it’s happening only because of the fare increases,” she said. "This is not just because of one policy. It’s the fault of every government we’ve had, from the left and the right.”