Three people died in a fire in a supermarket being ransacked in the Chilean capital early yesterday, as protests sparked by anger over social and economic conditions rocked one of Latin America’s most stable countries.
Santiago Mayor Karla Rubilar told reporters two people burned to death in the blaze and another later died in hospital, after the huge store controlled by Wal-Mart Stores was looted.
They were the first deaths in two days of violent unrest in which protesters have set buses on fire, burned metro stations and clashed with riot police in the city of 7 million — despite a curfew imposed overnight until 7am yesterday.
Soldiers were deployed in the streets for the first time since Chile returned to democracy in 1990, following the rightwing Augusto Pinochet dictatorship.
The protests were triggered by an unpopular hike in metro fares, which Chilean President Sebastian Pinera on Saturday said he was suspending.
Pinera appealed to people taking to the streets, saying “there are good reasons to do so,” but calling on them “to demonstrate peacefully.”
“Nobody has the right to act with brutal criminal violence,” he said.
However, clashes later erupted in Plaza Italia, ground zero of Friday’s violence, and outside the presidential palace.
Protesters again set buses on fire in downtown Santiago, leading to the suspension of services.
“We’re sick and tired, enough already. We’re tired of them screwing around with us. Politicians only do what they want to do, and turn their backs on all reality,” said Javiera Alarcon, a 29-year-old sociologist protesting in front of the presidential palace, which was surrounded by police and military vehicles.
Security forces blasted a crowd with water cannon, and riot police wrestled young protesters into vans.
“Having analyzed the situation and the appalling actions that occurred today, I have made the decision to suspend freedoms and movement through a total curfew,” said Chilean Army General Javier Iturriaga, who is overseeing security during the state of emergency.
Later on Saturday, the mayors of Valparaiso region and Concepcion province also announced states of emergency.
Dozens of protesters torched a building belonging to Chile’s oldest newspaper El Mercurio in Valparaiso city on Saturday evening, while elsewhere in the port city a metro station, supermarkets and other stores were burned.
The unrest was sparked by a hike in metro fares, which increased from 800 to 830 pesos (US$1.13 to US$1.17) for peak-hour travel, after a 20-peso hike in January.
The Santiago Metro, at 140km, is the largest and most modern in South America and a source of great pride for Chileans.
Demonstrators shouted “enough with abuse,” while the hashtag #ChileDesperto — Chile awake — made the rounds on social media.
Pinera’s conservative government has been caught flat-footed by the worst social upheaval in decades. It declared the state of emergency late on Friday and ordered hundreds of troops into the streets.
People were infuriated by a photograph of Pinera eating pizza in a restaurant with his family while the city burned.
The state of emergency is initially set for 15 days and restricts freedom of movement and assembly.
The unrest started as a fare-dodging protest mainly by students against the hike in metro ticket prices, blamed on rising oil prices and a weaker peso.
Chile has the highest per capita income of Latin America at US$20,000, with expected economic growth this year of 2.5 percent and just 2 percent inflation, but there is an undercurrent of frustration with rising health care and utility costs, low pensions and social inequality.
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