Chile extends emergency as unrest claims 11 lives

Updated Oct 22 2019


SANTIAGO: A military policeman stands guard at a supermarket as customers wait in line on Monday.—AP
SANTIAGO: A military policeman stands guard at a supermarket as customers wait in line on Monday.—AP

SANTIAGO: Chile’s death toll has risen to 11, authorities said on Monday, after three days of violent demonstrations and looting that saw President Sebastian Pinera claim the country was “at war”.

Almost 1,500 people were detained in the worst outbreak of social unrest in decades while the capital Santiago was placed under curfew for two nights running.

“We are at war against a powerful, implacable enemy, who does not respect anything or anyone and is willing to use violence and crime without any limits,” Pinera told reporters on Sunday after an emergency meeting with army general Javier Iturriaga, who has been placed in charge of order and security in the capital.

Karla Rubilar, the governor of the Santiago region, said eight people had died on Sunday and three on Saturday — all in the Santiago metropolitan area.

Santiago and nine more of Chile’s 16 regions were under a state of emergency, Pinera confirmed late on Sunday, with troops deployed onto the streets for the first time since Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship from 1973 to 1990.

The clashes, which have seen some 9,500 police and military fire tear gas and water cannon against protesters who have set fire to buses, smashed up metro stations and ransacked shops, were initially sparked by anger over metro fare hikes and wider social inequality.

Long queues formed at shops, service stations and bus stops while the Santiago metro service, suspended on Friday as protesters burned and vandalised stations, was partially running again on Monday as some people re­turned to work. In San­t­ia­go, many employers cancelled the working day, while most schools and uni­­versities remained closed.

Soldiers, though, patrol­led outside metro stations and military vehicles were parked in streets near the presidential palace as tensions remained high.

“You could see this coming. The government hasn’t done anything. It’s not just the metro fare that triggered this and ended in vandalism,” said sandwich seller Carlos Lucero. He said the government nee­ded to take concrete measures “to improve salaries, health, pensions”.

Chile: hub of stability

Chile, reeling from its worst social unrest in decades, has since the 1990s been considered a Latin American hub of political stability and economic growth after 17 years of dictatorship. Here is some background.

1. FROM DICTATOR­SHIP TO DEMOCRACY: In 1973 General Augusto Pinochet toppled Socialist President Salvador Allende in a military coup. Allende committed suicide in the presidential palace as troops closed in. Pinochet imposed a right-wing dictatorship that lasted for 17 years, during which at least 3,200 people were killed or disappeared as a result of political repression. Around 38,000 were tortured. In 1988 he lost a plebiscite on remaining in power and handed over to democratically elected Patricio Ayl­win in 1990. In 2006 Socia­list Michelle Bache­let be­­ca­me Chile’s first female president. The 2017 elections were won by conservative billionaire Sebastian Pinera, who had already been president in 2010-2014.

2. MODEL ECONOMY: Pinochet applied neo-liberal free-market methods, privatising healthcare, education and pensions. Chile turned to exports and in the 1980s became the preferred Latin American host for foreign investors. With this economic model still largely in place, growth reached a strong 4pc in 2018. The country of 18 million people also has the highest per capita income of Latin America at $20,000. GDP, however, fell to 1.8pc in the first half of 2019 — due to a challenging external context, adverse climatic conditions and a delay in reforms — and is expected at 2.5 per cent for the year. Despite slashing poverty from 30pc in 2000 to 8.6pc in 2019, the country has high social inequalities including in healthcare, education and pensions.

3. PRIESTS SCANDAL: The staunchly Roman Catholic country has been rocked by allegations of sexual abuse within the church going back decades. In May 2018 Pope Francis summoned all 34 Chilean bishops to Rome over the crisis and all tendered their resignations, although only a handful has been accepted. Since 2000 about 80 priests have been reported to authorities in Chile for alleged sexual abuse, including of children and adolescents.

4. WORLD’S MOST SEISMIC: Bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes mountain range to the east, long and narrow Chile is the world’s most seismic country. In 1960 it was struck by the most powerful earthquake ever registered which measured 9.5 and struck at Valdivia. More than 5,700 people were killed. In 2010 an 8.8-magnitude quake in the south and centre unleashed a tsunami that swept away entire villages, leaving around 520 people dead.

5. ASTRONOMY HEA­VEN: Benefitting from a totally clear sky for most of the year, northern Chile is home to some of the world’s most powerful telescopes.The construction of the planet’s biggest telescope was launched in May 2017 in the Atacama Desert by ESO, the European Organi­sation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemi­s­phere.

Published in Dawn, October 22nd, 2019