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LATIN AMERICA | 22-10-2019 12:55

Piñera seeks end to Chile's crisis after 15 die in violent clashes

Chile president to meet with other political parties in bid to end street violence; Presidential hopeful Alberto Fernández and Security Minister Patricia Bullrich weight in on crisis.

President Sebastián Piñera is calling a meeting with the leaders of Chile's political parties, in a bid to end street protests that have now claimed 15 lives, left 84 injured and led more than 2,600 people being detained.

Speaking from the Moneda Presidential Palace, Deputy Interior Minister Rodrigo Ubilla confirmed that 15 had died, "11 of them in the Metropolitan area," in acts "associated with" arson and the looting of shops and shopping centres. Local reports said around 1,400 had been jailed.

The country's worst violence in decades erupted Friday and was initially triggered by an increase in metro fares. But it has mushroomed into a broader outcry against social economic woes including a big gap between rich and poor in a country normally considered one of the most stable in Latin America.

The Chile Vamos leader, a conservative billionaire serving his second term, declared over the weekend that the country was "at war against powerful, implacable enemy," but Piñera adopted a more conciliatory tone Monday and said he wanted a "social agreement" to address people's grievances.

He said the meeting with political parties was to work on "a social agreement that will allow us all together to rapidly, efficiently and responsibly approach better solutions to the problems afflicting Chileans."

Speaking from the Moneda Presidential Palace, Interior Sub-Secretary Rodrigo Ubilla confirmed that 15 individuals had died from the unrest, "11 of them in the Metropolitan area," in acts "associated with" arson and the looting of shops and shopping centres.

The violence – which has featured clashes with police and some brute force from officers – is the worst to hit Chile since it returned to democracy after the 1973-1990 right-wing dictatorship led by general Augusto Pinochet.

The Army has been called out to provide security as part of a state of emergency and a curfew has been in force the past three nights.

"This is not happening because they raised the metro fare by 30 pesos," said a man who gave his name only as Orlando, taking part in Monday's protests. 

He cited gripes including low salaries and pensions, waiting lists at hospitals and high prices for medicine. 

"This has been going on for 30 years," the 55-year-old said.

Transport scarce

The metro fare increase has been suspended but that has not stopped the violence. Human rights groups have criticised the actions of the Chilean security forces, accusing them of repression in response to videos on social networks recording violent acts by police officers and members of the Army. 

The government raised the death toll by three on Tuesday, taking it to 15, Ubilla told a news conference.

Three of the deaths outside the capital were from gunshots, he said.

As people returned to work Monday, transport was a problem because only one of the metro's seven lines were running. Many stations were heavily damaged in the first night of violence.

Many schools and universities have cancelled class.

The violence overnight Monday was less intense than other nights. A drive through the city in the early hours of Tuesday showed it largely deserted except for military vehicles and police on patrol.

Earlier in several parts of the capital, protesters defiantly ignored the order and faced off with security forces. A young man died after being hit by a military truck during the looting of a fishing company in the southern city of Talcahuano, the prosecutor's office said Monday. 

Since the unrest began more than 2,600 people have been detained. Once again on Monday, security forces – some 9,500 of which have been deployed – used tear gas and water cannon on the most unruly demonstrators.

Thousands of protesters gathered peacefully in the main Plaza Italia square in the capital on Monday, chanting "Piñera Out!" and "Get out military!"

Art teacher Camila Rojas, 29, said protesters had many demands, but "Piñera's resignation is the first thing."

And while some broke up curbs to throw stones, smashed bus shelters, looted shops, set up barricades and started fires, the vast majority in the capital were in festive mood, chanting, banging drums, paying music and dancing.

"We have to have a party to cancel out in a way those who are doing the excesses," said Marcelo González, 25, an engineering student with a drum

"I'm protesting for my daughter, for my wife, for my mother, not just for the 30 pesos of the Metro — for the low salaries, for the privileges of the political class, for their millionaire salaries," said Andres Abregu, an Uber driver who complained he is still paying a student debt and cannot provide a decent life for his family.

Bullrich, Fernández on protests

The Argentine government has remained mostly silent on the unrest until now, with the exception of comments related to local protests outside Chilean diplomatic buildings from Security Minister Patricia Bullrich. President Mauricio Macri and President Piñera are allies in the region with similar foreign policy approaches.

Opposition Frente por la Victoria ("Victory Front") lawmakers, however, issued a statement expressing their "solidarity" with the people of Chile and their "deep rejection of the repressive practices
decreed by the Government of Sebastián Piñera," which they argued was representative of " the country and the region 40 years ago."

The Kirchnerite-Peronist block said they were "on the side of peace [and] respect" and called for "dialogue to cease the deaths, torture and arbitrary detentions by the Chilean Government."

Demonstrators gathered outside the Chilean Consulate in Buenos Aires on Monday, close to the Plaza de Mayo, to protest the country's curfew, state of emergency and "police and military repression" in Chile.

The protest was initially peaceful, but clashes were later witnessed, with petrol bombs thrown at security officers. Two journalists were also assaulted by hooded individuals, who protesters described as "infiltrators." 

Another demonstration passed off without incident in Mendoza.

Seciurity Minister Patricia Bullrich, commenting on the clashes in Buenos Aires, criticised the demonstrators and blamed "the Left" for the violence. Moving onto the situation on the ground in Chile, the minister said that "the Chilean State had to go out and put order."

"What is happening in Chile is not a social protest, it is an insurrection," she added.

Opposition presidential hopeful Alberto Fernández, quizzed during an interview for his thoughts on the crisis, said that the "common denominator" of the social conflicts witnessed in Chile and Ecuador in recent weeks is "economic policies that hurt the weakest sectors."

"The increase in the subway [fare] was the spark that caused the anger from a lot of things to come out," he said, describing Chile as "most unequal [country] in Latin America, and the one with the widest gap between rich and poor, and it has been like that for many years."

Bachelet calls for calm

Piñera's predecessor as president, Michelle Bachelet, issued a statement calling for dialogue and urging all sides to work "toward solutions that contribute to calming the situation."

Now the UN high commissioner for human rights, Bachelet called for an investigation into all acts, by government or protesters," that have caused injuries and death."

Patricio Navia, a professor at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University , said that protesters "feel the government cares more about the wealthy and that social programmes help the very poor, but the rest of the population is left to care for themselves."

"They are not poor enough to get government subsidies nor rich enough to get government tax credits. They revolted to make their voice heard," he said.

Otherwise peaceful Chilean protests are also often used as springboards for more violent action by smaller, hard-line factions that want to overturn the social system.

"As protests go, this can be interpreted as a hopeful one. People want it," Navia said. "There was destruction and looting, yes. But the majority of the people are in favour of peaceful protests. In fact, the riots are probably undermining the support for the protests."

Demonstrators defied a Monday curfew and gathered in the affluent Las Condes neighbourhood outside the heavily guarded Military School in Santiago to bang pots in a cacerolazo protest.

The nation of 18 million people has won worldwide acclaim for its low poverty, inflation and unemployment, rarities in a region still struggling to leave behind economic dysfunction. But the rate of inequality is among the worst in Latin America.

"You can argue that there's a middle class, that we decreased poverty, that today we don't have inflation, that the macro economy is in control, etcetera, etcetera. And all those arguments will be worthless to those people who don't make it to the end of the month," said Marta Lagos, director of the polling firm Latinobarometro.a

– TIMES/AFP/NA

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