Chile’s president Sebastián Piñera has declared a state of emergency in the capital Santiago after protests against increases in metro prices turned violent, with riot police using tear gas to battle demonstrators who looted shops, burnt a bus and firebombed the headquarters of an energy company.
One of Latin America’s wealthiest and most stable countries, Chile had long been considered immune to the kind of angry protests against austerity measures which have characterised other nations in the region, most recently Ecuador. But amid widespread anger over rising living costs, a rise in fares on the Santiago metro system earlier this month proved the last straw.
Mr Piñera announced the emergency measures in a brief broadcast from La Moneda presidential palace early on Saturday, saying the “serious and repeated attacks” of the previous days had left him no alternative but to make use of the emergency powers granted him under Chile’s constitution, which dates back to the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.
“The objective is very simple and very profound: to ensure public order, to ensure peace for the inhabitants of Santiago,” said Mr Piñera, a centre-right billionaire now in the second year of his second term in office.
Attacking the violent demonstrators as “true delinquents who do not respect anything” and promising to punish them with a special state security law, he also promised that his government would begin a dialogue in the coming days to listen to the concerns of those most affected by the price rise.
Television pictures showed armoured vehicles patrolling the streets of Santiago, in scenes not seen in Chile since the Pinochet dictatorship, which lasted from 1973-90.
The protests began after the government imposed a sharp increase in the price of metro tickets earlier this month, saying that the devaluation of the peso and rising energy costs meant it could not afford ever-higher subsidies.
Demonstrations had grown in size and scale during the past week, with protesters jumping turnstiles and dangling their feet over the edge of platforms to halt trains on the metro system, one of Latin America’s largest and most modern with 136 stations and 87 miles of track.
During Friday’s protests, a group of demonstrators attacked the headquarters of the Enel Chile, the local subsidiary of Italian energy giant Enel and Chile’s largest private electricity company. They also set fire to several metro stations and threw stones at police. Enel Chile said it had evacuated workers from the building safely and there were no injuries in the incident.
Considered one of Latin America’s most investor-friendly presidents, Mr Piñera has seen his attempts to boost growth by promoting reforms in tax, pension and labour laws bogged down in congress, where he lacks a majority. Nonetheless, Chile is forecast to grow by just under three per cent this year, well above the average for Latin America.