Chile Riots Over Income Inequality Spread to Rest of Country

Philip Sanders, Eduardo Thomson and Laura Millan Lombrana

(Bloomberg) -- At least two died and dozens were injured from looting and riots this weekend in Santiago and other major Chilean cities as protests against income equality intensified and spread across the country.

The government has declared a state of emergency in the capital and four other regions in central Chile, giving it broader powers to enact security measures like curfews, for the first time since Augusto Pinochet was dictator.

President Sebastian Pinera announced Saturday night that he would suspend the hike in subway fares that initially sparked the protests. But it was too little, and too late, to immediately defuse the tension.

The unrest has disrupted daily life in Santiago, with rioters damaging more than 70 subway stations damaged and setting buses on fire, with Metro de Santiago, the capital’s subway operator, estimating the cost of damage at more than $300 million, according to La Tercera.

Delayed flights resulted caused chaos at the city’s airport. Pinera met with the heads of the Supreme Court and Congress on Sunday to discuss ways to overcome the crisis, according to media reports.

The deaths occurred Saturday night after rioters set fire to a supermarket, while 62 police officers were wounded during the protests that spread across other regions, Interior Minister Andres Chadwick told reporters on Sunday.

At least 22 people were severely wounded during the protests, Chile’s National Human Rights Institute said on Sunday, according to Chilean daily El Mostrador. The organization said there were reports of excessive force and sexual harassment by security forces, with women being forced to take off their clothes, El Mostrador reported.

Rioters burned stores and set up barricades during the night, even after the army announced a curfew between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. Flights were suspended during the night at the Santiago airport with travelers sleeping on conveyor belts to respect the lock-in.

Protests Persist

Demonstrators banging pots and pans marched again in Santiago on Sunday, with the armed forces intervening in some instances to disperse them, according to local media. Most stores and malls were closed, and the few establishments that were open saw long lines of people buying groceries, water and fuel.

Earlier in the day, barricades were still spewing smoke in the streets of Santiago as people tried to catch the few buses still circulating in the city. Others walked or shared cars to get to their jobs, according to radio Cooperativa.

Santiago is set to host President Donald Trump and other leaders of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in less than a month.

Chile’s worst protests in decades have prompted the government to announce a state of emergency, first in Santiago and now in six cities including Concepcion, the second biggest in the country, with more than 9,000 soldiers deployed on the streets.

Metro de Santiago, the capital’s subway operator, put the cost of damage at more than $200 million. Universities announced a suspension of classes on Monday.

‘Two Chiles’

Manuel Jose Ossandon, a senator for ruling party RN, had earlier urged President Pinera to freeze further increases in public service prices, saying the political establishment has failed to attend to people’s needs.

“We have two Chiles and this is serious,” he told reporters outside the presidential palace La Moneda, addressing the nation’s economic disparities.

What started as a mass student protest over an increase in public transport fares on Friday morphed into a broader movement this weekend demanding changes to Chile’s economic model, which has produced vast wealth, but left many struggling to get by. The fare increase -- 30 pesos, or 4 U.S. cents -- came just weeks after the government announced a 10% hike in electricity bills.

It’s the worst civil unrest since the end of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in 1990, and hundreds have been detained. For many Chileans, seeing soldiers on the streets again revives bad memories.

“The levels of destruction have never been seen before,” government spokeswoman Cecilia Perez told reporters.

The state of emergency lasts for 15 days and can be extended by the government for another 15.

Pinera’s popularity, already affected by slow economic growth and weak consumer demand, is set to take a further hit following the protests, but also because of a perceived public relations faux pas. The president was seen at a restaurant Friday night celebrating the birthday of one of his grandsons.

Government spokeswoman Perez defended the president’s right to a personal life and said he was soon back at work to supervise the situation.

Chile in recent decades has been considered an oasis of calm and security amid volatility in some other South American countries.

(Updates injury and death toll and adds damage estimate for subway system.)

--With assistance from Jonathan Roeder.

To contact the reporters on this story: Philip Sanders in Santiago at psanders@bloomberg.net;Eduardo Thomson in Santiago at ethomson1@bloomberg.net;Laura Millan Lombrana in Santiago at lmillan4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Eduardo Thomson at ethomson1@bloomberg.net, Jonathan Roeder, Linus Chua

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