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Demonstrators march during a protest against Chile’s government. Photo: Reuters

1 million Chileans take to streets of Santiago to demand president’s resignation

  • Protesters in the South American country are demanding economic reforms as people struggle over spiralling costs of living
  • The demonstrations were sparked earlier this month over a hike in public transport fares, which soon boiled into riots, arson and looting

Some 1 million people took to the streets in Chile on Friday for the largest protests in a week of deadly demonstrations demanding economic reforms and the resignation of President Sebastian Pinera.

The leader told the thronging masses that he had “heard the message” in a post on Twitter, characterising the protests in a positive light and as a means towards change.

Protesters waved national flags, danced, banged pots with wooden spoons and held up placards urging political and social change as they streamed through the streets, walking from around Santiago to converge on Plaza Italia.

Traffic, already hobbled by truck and taxi drivers protesting road tolls, ground to a standstill in Santiago as crowds shut down major avenues and public transport closed early ahead of marches that built throughout the afternoon.

Protesters bang drums during an anti-government march in Santiago. Photo: Reuters

By mid-evening, most had made their way home in the dark ahead of an 11pm military curfew.

Santiago Governor Karla Rubilar said a million people marched in the capital – more than 5 per cent of the country’s population. Protesters elsewhere took to the streets in every major Chilean city.

“Today is a historic day,” Rubilar wrote on Twitter. “The Metropolitan Region is host to a peaceful march of almost one million people who represent a dream for a new Chile.”

Some local commentators estimated the Santiago rally well over the million mark, describing it as the largest single march since the dying years of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Hundreds of thousands continue to demonstrate in Chile despite reforms

Chile’s unrest is the latest in a flare-up of protests in South America and around the world – from Beirut to Barcelona – each with local triggers but also sharing underlying anger at social disparities and ruling elites.

Protests in Chile that started over a hike in public transport fares last Friday boiled into riots, arson and looting that have killed at least 17 people, injured hundreds, resulted in more than 7,000 arrests and caused more than US$1.4 billion of losses to Chilean businesses.

Chile’s military has taken over security in Santiago, a city of 6 million people now under a state of emergency with night-time curfews as 20,000 soldiers patrol the streets.

Demonstrators march against Chile's state economic model in Santiago. Photo: Reuters

Clotilde Soto, a retired teacher aged 82, said she had taken to the streets because she did not want to die without seeing change for the better in her country.

“Above all we need better salaries and better pensions,” she said.

Chile’s centre-right President Sebastian Pinera, a billionaire businessman, trounced the opposition in the most recent 2017 election, dealing the centre-left ruling coalition its biggest loss since the country’s return to democracy in 1990.

But as protests ignited this week, Pinera scrapped previous plans and promised instead to boost the minimum wage and pensions, ditch fare hikes on public transport and fix the country’s ailing health care system.

Chile’s president offers measures to quell protest wave before Apec summit

“We’ve all heard the message. We’ve all changed,” said Pinera on Twitter following the peak of the rallies. “Today’s joyful and peaceful march, in which Chileans have asked for a more just and unified Chile, opens hopeful paths into the future.”

Still, many protest placards, chants and graffiti scrawled on buildings around the city call for his exit.

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.

“The people, united, will never be defeated,” the crowds chanted over the din.

The latest rally was among the country’s largest. Photo: Reuters

By early evening there had been no signs of violence or clashes with the security forces, who maintained a significant but low-key presence inside paint-spattered and stone-dented armoured vehicles parked in side streets.

Beatriz Demur, 42, a yoga teacher from the suburb of Barrio Brazil, joined a stream of demonstrators shuffling toward Plaza Italia with her daughter Tabatha, 22.

“We want Chile to be a better place,” said Demur. “The most powerful have privatised everything. It’s been that way for 30 years.”

Eyeing the crowds packing the square, her daughter said: “I have waited for this a long time … It’s not scary, it’s exciting. It means change.”

Chaos in Chile’s capital as expensive bus rides spark violent student riots

Anali Parra, 26, a street hawker, was with her daughter Catalina, 9, and five-month-old son Gideon Jesus, his buggy decked in streamers and an indigenous Mapuche flag.

“This isn’t going to go away,” Parra said. “Pinera should just go now.”

On Friday morning, trucks, cars and taxis had slowed to a crawl on major roads, honking horns and waving Chilean flags. “No more tolls! Enough with the abuse!” read bright yellow-and-red signs plastered to the front of vehicles.

Many bus drivers in Santiago also staged a walk-off on Friday after one of their number was shot.

Protesters in Santiago gather to request the resignation of Chilean President Sebastian Pinera. Photo: EPA-EFE

While much of wealthy east Santiago has remained calm under evening lockdown, the poorer side of the city has seen widespread vandalism and looting.

Pinera told the nation on Thursday he had heard the demands of Chileans “loud and clear”.

He has sent lawmakers legislation to overturn a recent hike in electricity rates, and called for reforms to guarantee a minimum wage of US$480 a month and introduce state medical insurance for catastrophes.

Seated with a group of elderly Chileans over lunch on Friday, Pinera put finishing touches on a bill to hike minimum pensions by 20 per cent. “We must approve these projects with the urgency that Chileans demand,” Pinera said.

Lawmakers pushing the reforms forward were nonetheless forced to evacuate the country’s Congress in the port city of Valparaiso earlier in the day when angry protesters rushed the building, overwhelming security forces.

An online poll conducted by local company Activa Research of 2,090 people between October 22 to 23 found that 83 per cent of respondents said they supported the goals of the demonstrators, but 72.5 per cent opposed violence as a method of protest.

The principal causes of the protests were low salaries, high utility prices, poor pensions and economic inequality, it said.

Additional reporting by AFP

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Million people jam capital to call for reform