Death Toll Rises to 15 in Chilean Protests

A demonstrator holds a Chilean flag as an armored police vehicle approaches in a protest in Santiago on Tuesday. (AP photo/Esteban Felix)

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Rioting, arson attacks and violent clashes wracked Chile for a fifth day Tuesday, and the government raised the death toll to 15 in an upheaval that has nearly paralyzed the South American country long seen as the region’s oasis of stability.

President Sebastián Piñera announced a program Tuesday night calling for modest boosts to the lowest incomes and increased taxes on the wealthiest as he sought to calm anger in the streets.

About half of Chile’s 16 regions remained under an emergency decree and some were a under military curfew, the first — other than for natural disasters — imposed since the country returned to democracy in 1990 after Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s bloody 17-year dictatorship.

Unrest was sparked last week when a less than 4% rise in subway fares led to students jumping turnstiles in protest. The defiance exploded into violence Friday with demonstrators setting fire to subway stations, buses and a high-rise building.

Demonstrations escalated with wide-ranging demands for improvements in education, health care and wages, and spread nationwide, fueled by frustration among Chileans who feel they have not shared in the economic advances in one of Latin America’s wealthiest nations.

“I fight so that all that will end and so that all of us will have something fair,” said protester José Tomás López, a cook.

He said he took to the streets “because I’ve seen how my mother lives, with a salary of not more than ($700 a month) to maintain my three siblings, and I know her debts and all her efforts to meet them.”

Riot police used tear gas and water cannons Tuesday to break up marches by rock-throwing demonstrators in several parts of the capital Santiago, while soldiers and police guarded Chileans who formed long lines at supermarkets.

“I’ve walked several kilometers searching for milk, but the supermarkets remain closed and neighborhood stores have run out,” said Carmen Fuentealba, a retiree.

Many stores, subway stations and banks were burned, damaged or looted during protests over the weekend, and some people have reported problems getting cash at ATMs.

“It’s enough with this,” said store owner Fernando García. “They want to destroy it all. I don’t sleep at night because I fear that they’ll loot.”

An anti-government demonstrator gives riot police a piece of her mind in Santiago, Chile, on Tuesday. (AP photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Shortly before the rioting broke out last week, Chile’s conservative president boasted in an interview with The Financial Times that Chile “looks like an oasis” in the region because it has a stable democracy and a balanced and growing economy that has been creating jobs and improving pay.

But the wealth is unevenly spread, with one of the region’s highest rates of inequality. Many Chilean families earn $550 to $700 a month and pensions can be as low as $159.

“It’s indispensable that they lower the price of medications, because there’s no salary that can hold up to this,” said Hernán Pavéz, a retired teacher.

Long lines of cars continued to snake from gas stations as drivers worried about supplies in a country that imports nearly all its gasoline.

“People are desperate,” said gas station attendant Jacqueline Zúñiga. “They think the gasoline, the petroleum is going to end, and they keep filling and filling their tanks. … This has all led to aggressiveness.”

The disorder has prevented many people from getting to their jobs, and about 2 million young people are unable to get to classes.

Marta Lagos, director of the polling firm Latinobarometro, said problems have accumulated over at least the last four governments, of both the left and right.

Officials can say “that we have reduced poverty, that there’s no inflation these days, that the economy is controlled, etcetera, etcetera,” Lagos said. “And all those arguments mean nothing to the people who can’t make it to the end of the month.”

After the protests erupted, Piñera rolled back the subway hike and declared a state of emergency. He said this week that Chile is “at war with a powerful, relentless enemy that respects nothing or anyone and is willing to use violence and crime without any limits.”

But he did not identify the “enemy,” and the remark brought rebukes from celebrities, politicians and soccer players.

“A war needs two sides,” Chilean soccer player Gary Medel tweeted. “And here, we’re just one people who want equality.”

Piñera, a billionaire and former airline owner, then switched to a more conciliatory tone. He said the government is working on a reconstruction plan to cover the hundreds of millions of dollars in damaged infrastructure.

The president met with members of his administration and three of the six main opposition leaders Tuesday to explore a “social agreement” on solving “the problems that affect Chileans.”

Hours later, Piñera announced an agenda calling for increasing the lowest monthly pensions from $151 to $181, raising the monthly minimum wage from $413 to $481 and rescinding a 92% rise in electricity rates scheduled to take effect in November. It would include a tax increase for anyone earning more than $11,000 a month.

Some leftist parties boycotted the meeting.

“I think it’s a critical moment in Chile in history,” said Joe Eldrige, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America. “Are we going to go back to the old kind of right-left extremes … or are these institutions sufficiently flexible and adaptable to address the current situation?”

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