More than a million people poured into Santiago’s public squares and thoroughfares on Friday afternoon in one of the biggest street protests ever seen in the Chilean capital.
Downtown areas such as the iconic Plaza Italia came alive with people, mainly student-age and twenty-somethings but also older people and families, waving flags and banners seeking better pay, pensions, health care and education. Many of those who participated in neighborhood protests earlier in the week opted to join the downtown demonstrations Friday, which were organized on social media via the hashtag #LaMarchaMasGrandeDeChile (Chile’s biggest march).
“We need a new social pact, a new constitution made by all of us,” said Pablo Steil, who owns a marketing business with 30 employees. “I’m one of Chile’s privileged and we need to start thinking we’ll have to give something more to make this society a bit fairer.”
Earlier in the day, truckers and bus drivers jammed roads and highways around Santiago, pushing for the elimination of user-pay fees on urban highways. The congressional building in Valparaiso was evacuated after a group tried to force their way in. A curfew will begin in the port city at 8 p.m. and in Santiago at 11 p.m.
While violence appears to be abating, the largely peaceful street turnouts have gained momentum. A survey by pollster Activa Research showed 84 per cent of Chileans support the demonstrations and 37 per cent said the government has been slow to respond. This weekend President Sebastian Pinera plans to hold talks with business groups, unions, universities, mayors and part of his cabinet.
The breadth of the protests points to the huge challenge facing Pinera’s center-right government. The president initially tackled the unrest as a law-and-order matter, an approach that only made matters worse. He then apologized for failing to recognize genuine grievances and announced measures including raising taxes for high-income earners and lifting pensions. Protesters want more sweeping changes, an immediate withdrawal of troops and cabinet changes.
“The government has so far proposed band-aid solutions,” said Gloria Gomez, an notary employee in low-income neighborhood of Renca. “I’ll keep demonstrating for as long as protests remain peaceful.”
Elsewhere in the country, many Chileans were trying to return to normal. Copper miners and port workers ended protests and resumed operations while more subway stations, shops and schools reopened. Still, there are more reports of sporadic looting.
Earlier, television images showed the full extent of damage from subway riots that triggered the protests. While the offical death toll rose to 19, the National Human Rights Institute said 585 people had been wounded and 2,948 have been arrested as of noon Friday. The Institute has filed 12 lawsuits against authorities for sexual violence including stripping detainees, groping and threats of rape.
While more then 600 supermarkets have been looted, the rate of serious violent events has slowed. Losses for Chile’s retail sector due to looting and lost sales reached $1.4 billion since the protests began, according to the Santiago Chamber of Commerce.
Chile’s benchmark stock index capped its worst week in almost two years, with losses paced by utilities and consumer shares. The Chilean peso sank 2.2 per cent against the dollar this week.
Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, now the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said she would send a team to look into allegations of human-rights violations, a move the government welcomed.
“No one can deny 1 million people in the street,” the head of the regional government Karla Rubilar told CNN Chile on Friday. “We have to be humble and listen.”