A state of emergency has been declared by Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, after days of violence and protests in the country, sparked by a rise in public transport fares. The measures, which will last for a total of fifteen days, include a restriction on freedom of movement, as well as a limit for the right for people to assemble. A night curfew for certain areas has also been announced. The most problematic announcement, however, and one which risks alienating protesters, is the decision to let troops patrol the streets of Santiago for the first time since the end of General Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1990, a decision which critics have derided as excessive and detrimental.
The decision from President Piñera to implement the state of emergency came early on Saturday morning, hours after protests and rioting took place in Santiago targeting the city’s underground system, which will remain closed throughout the weekend. Protesters also burned a public bus and a building downtown used for the headquarters of Enel, an electric utility company. Reuters have reported that police were forced to use tear gas and water cannons to clear away protesters and that 308 people were arrested on Friday alone, whilst 156 police officers were injured.
In his address to the nation on Saturday, President Piñera sympathized with those who had been impacted by the rate hikes, and said that the decision to announce a state emergency, was done “to ensure public order and the safety of public and private property”. As reported by the Guardian, the Interior Minister Andrés Chadwick also announced that the government would enact the State Security Law, the enforcement of which would see potential twenty-year prison sentences being handed down to people found guilty of damaging public property. This response by the government has been dismissed by critics and analysts as being too heavy handed. Speaking to Reuters, Lucia Dammert, a professor at the University of Santiago, argued that the use of a state emergency should only be a last resort, and that there were plenty of alternative responses to choose from, most of which did not include sending the army out on to the street.
Although the President has announced a government U-turn by saying that there will be a freeze on the proposed changes to public transport fares, the scale of the protests on Friday suggests that the focus of the protests have already shifted to encompass broader discontent, such as the cost of living, which has soared in recent years. As such, it is paramount that the government understands the wider grievances that have fueled these protests, including a poor healthcare and education system. In a welcome development, President Piñera announced in his address that in the coming days the government would “call for a dialogue” with those affected by the fare increases. As reported in the Guardian, a nationwide strike has been planned for Monday. The response by the government to that strike will help provide an indication as to whether Piñera’s call for dialogue with protesters is sincere.
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