SANTIAGO – The Chilean government established on Friday night a state of national emergency in the capital Santiago and surrounding areas following extensive arson, rioting and looting in the city by students protesting transport fares, particularly subway fares, which are considered among the most expensive in the region.
With his decision president Sebastián Piñera has turned the city’s law and order, temporarily under the control of the military in an attempt to control the chaos and destruction in the country’s capital.
The protest by students began on Monday when hundreds of young people mobbed several stations in Santiago, jumping over or dipping under turnstiles to protest a 4% increase in subway fares from about US$1 to US$1,16. Chile doesn’t produce its own oil and must import its fuel, leading to high prices for gasoline, electricity and elevated public transportation costs.
By the end of the week the protests had turned violent with students breaking gates, shattering glass and throwing debris onto the electrified rails. The situation further deteriorated when some seven stations were set on fire, bank branches and supermarkets attacked and the country’s main electricity company headquarters building, –several stories high–, emergency facilities were ignited.
The subway service in Chile’s capital was suspended at least until Friday, trapping hundreds of thousands of commuters on their way home from work. By nightfall, the protests had extended throughout Santiago. Television images showed students and others attacking police vehicles, throwing stones and burning buses, along with scenes of destruction of public and private property
Police who had been trying to break up the protests with tear gas withdrew from some subway stations.
Transportation Minister Gloria Hutt, who earlier rejected lowering fares, said “it’s possible that during the next week the functioning (of the subway system) returns in a gradual fashion.”
But to make things worse, while all the destruction and protests mostly in downtown Santiago and thousands stranded because of the transport chaos, President Piñera was caught on video in a family party, celebrating a grandson’s birthday at a pizza parlor in one of Santiago’s residential areas, where residents were not aware of the tear gas or rubber bullets.
The government filed a complaint under the State Security Law against people who damage the subway system or prevent its normal operation, according to Interior Minister Andrés Chadwick. The law carries prisons sentences of three to five years for offenders.
The National Coordinator of Secondary Students, one of two groups representing high school students, called for the protest to be continued, and a major action has been planned for next Monday.
Metro officials say the fare price was raised because of a devaluation of the currency, rising fuel costs and the need for maintenance.
Chile is usually named as a show case of business friendly atmosphere and correct macroeconomic policies, and as such is a privileged member of the OECD. But it also figures at the bottom of the list in that organization when it comes to education, health and social services ratings.–MercoPress