In Depth

How the Chilean protests began

President Sebastian Pinera is under pressure to defuse mass unrest in the normally stable Latin American nation

Fresh fires and unrest have broken out in cities across Chile this week despite efforts by the embattled president to quell the country’s biggest political crisis in three decades.

Protesters clashed with riot police in the capital Santiago, which has been engulfed by tear gas and smoke.

Here is what you need to know.

How did it all start?

Mass protests began in mid-October after the price of a journey on Santiago’s metro system was increased by 4%. Students called on city residents to stop paying for tickets. “The turnstile-hopping rapidly devolved into larger demonstrations and chaos, with looting in supermarkets, rioting in the streets, and the torching of 22 metro stations,” says Vox.

The centre-right president Sebastian Pinera called for a state of emergency, installed a curfew in cities and sent 20,000 troops on to the streets, claiming Chile was “at war with a powerful, implacable enemy”.

But the protests escalated, leaving at least 20 people dead and 9,200 detained, according to the latest figures from the justice ministry. Demands from demonstrators have grown to include better pensions, higher salaries, lower utility prices and improved public services.

While organised crime groups dominated the headlines amid the arson and looting in the first week, the “narrative changed” on Friday 25 October when one million people gathered for a peaceful demonstration in the capital, says Vox.

“As crowds of colourful demonstrators stretched along Santiago’s thoroughfares as far as the eye could see, the noise of pots and pans being clanged with spoons, a clamour that has become the soundtrack for the popular uprising, was ear-splitting,” says The Santiago Times.

The newspaper says more than 5% of the country’s population turned out for the protest, described as the “largest single march since the dying years of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet”, who oversaw a military coup of Chile’s socialist government in 1973 and ruled until 1990.

How has Pinera responded?

The president has since apologised for his initial approach and offered a more appeasing tone. He has replaced eight ministers in his cabinet and suspended the rise in metro fares.

Pinera, himself a billionaire businessman, called for a new “social pact”, promising higher taxes on the rich to boost the minimum wage and pensions, and to cut the prices of medicines and improve health insurance.

But a poll, published in local daily La Tercera and conducted by Chilean pollster Cadem, found that 80% of Chileans thought the reforms were inadequate.

The survey showed Pinera’s approval rating had plunged to 14%, the lowest for a Chilean president since the country’s return to democracy three decades ago, reports Reuters.

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The news agency notes that Chile, the world’s top copper producer, has “long been one of the region’s most prosperous and stable free-market economies”. But “entrenched inequality and spiralling costs of living” were key issues behind the protests.

It adds that “similar scenes have played out in cities across the world in recent months, from Hong Kong to Beirut to Barcelona, sharing in common anger at ruling elites”.

However, Eugenio Tironi, a political consultant in Santiago, tells the Financial Times that the Chilean protests are more spontaneous and decentralised than other protests.

What happens next?

The UN high commissioner for human rights, former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, announced that she was sending in a team to investigate allegations of human rights abuses against protesters.

Meanwhile, Vox notes that the pressure is on to defuse the unrest before world leaders arrive for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Santiago in mid-November. The Chilean capital is also holding the COP 25, the UN Climate Change Conference, in December. “The clock is ticking, but the solutions remain elusive,” says Vox.

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