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Chileans go on strike as protest death toll hits 18

Thursday October 24 2019

Demonstrators hold a big Chilean flag in Santiago

Demonstrators hold a big Chilean flag in Santiago on the sixth straight day of street violence which erupted over a now suspended hike in metro ticket prices, on October 23, 2019. PHOTO | PABLO VERA | AFP 

AFP
By AFP
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Santiago

Thousands of Chileans flooded the streets of Santiago and other cities Wednesday on day one of a general strike, upping the pressure on President Sebastien Pinera after days of social unrest that have left at least 18 dead.

Students, professors and state workers walked off the job at the urging of the country's largest union, ignoring a package of measures announced by Pinera aimed at quelling the violence.

"THE STRIKE IS ON! We say it loud and clear: enough of the increases and abuses," said the Workers' United Center of Chile (CUT), which organized the two-day action with about 20 other groups.

In the capital Santiago, police used water cannons to dispel protesters.

"Chile has awakened," read the sign of one protester.

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VIOLENT PROTESTS

The country, usually one of the most stable in Latin America, has experienced its worst violence in decades since protests against a now-scrapped hike in metro fares escalated dramatically on Friday.

Demonstrators have decried social and economic woes, including a yawning gap between rich and poor.

A four-year-child and a man were killed in the latest protests when a drunk driver rammed into a crowd of demonstrators, Interior Undersecretary Rodrigo Ubilla said.

A third person died after being beaten by police, according to the victim's family.

In an address to the nation late Tuesday, Pinera apologized for failing to anticipate the outbreak of social unrest.

"I recognize this lack of vision," Pinera said after a meeting with some of Chile's opposition leaders.

Beyond the dead, another 269 people have been injured and about 1,900 have been arrested, according to the National Institute for Human Rights (INDH).

PRESIDENT PROMISES

Having initially taken a confrontational line -- declaring that Chile was "at war against a powerful, implacable enemy," and imposing a state of emergency in Santiago and most of Chile's 16 regions -- Pinera has rapidly changed tack and sought cross-party support to find a solution.

He says he will increase the universal basic pension by 20 percent, cancel a recent 9.2 percent increase in electricity bills and propose a law that would see the state cover the costs of expensive medical treatment.

He also pledged a state subsidy to increase the minimum wage from 301,000 to 350,000 pesos (Sh49,742)) a month and said the government would introduce health insurance for medication, which is among the most expensive in the region.

UNCONVINCED PUBLIC

Chileans were unconvinced by the promises.

"I don't think that what Pinera said is all that useful," said 38-year-old Karla Araneda, who works near the seat of government.

"Today, even more people are going to be in the streets and the problems are going to continue."

After widespread scenes of violence, destruction, arson and looting last week, protests have become more peaceful this week, particularly in Santiago.

But it's the worst violence to hit Chile since the country returned to democracy after the 1973-1990 right-wing dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet.

Some 20,000 police and troops have been deployed while a nighttime curfew was announced on each of the last four days.

DEMANDS

Strike organizers issued a statement demanding that the government end the state of emergency and send troops back to their barracks.

The country's powerful copper mine workers' unions have joined the strike movement.

Chile is the largest producer of copper in the world, much of which is sold to China.

But despite 2.5 percent growth, ordinary Chileans are deeply unhappy about low salaries and pensions, as well as health and education systems that are unaffordable for most.

"Pinera has always been a liar and now... he is asking for forgiveness," said 23-year-old Carlos Morales.

Another resident, Ximena Gutierrez, told AFP: "We will not be silent."

Before Pinera's announcement, one of Chile's largest conglomerates, Quinenco, promised to increase its minimum salaries to 500,000 pesos (Sh70,000) a month from January 1 -- 60 percent more than the current minimum wage.

Chile's big business conglomerates are one of the major factors in the huge wealth disparity that has angered protesters.

DAMAGES

The strike will put Santiago to the test. Life in the capital has been returning to normal, with three of seven metro lines due to be open Wednesday and buses back on the road.

More than half of Santiago's 136 metro stations suffered heavy damage during last week's protests and remained guarded by soldiers.

Shops and businesses -- even banks -- appeared to be reopening, but some Santiago-area schools were still closed.