SANTIAGO – Thousands of Chileans occupied Santiago’s Plaza Italia square on Monday for an 18th day of demonstrations demanding structural change to address stark economic equality.
The “Super Monday” mobilization, which followed a quiet weekend, was convened by the Social Unity Roundtable, a coalition of some 70 labor unions and grassroots organizations.
Traffic moved normally through the busy square Monday morning amid isolated confrontations between hooded activists and members of the Carabineros, Chile’s militarized national police.
But protesters began streaming into Plaza Italia by mid-afternoon and filled the square within hours.
Participants carried signs with slogans such as “All power to the assemblies,” referring to the town-halls promoted by Social Unity with the aim of formulating a coherent program and set of demands.
The movement, which brought 1.2 million people – more than 5 percent of Chile’s population – into the center of Santiago on Oct. 25, is characterized by its disenchantment with politicians and the institutions of government.
In line with that distrust, hundreds congregated earlier Monday outside Congress to reject measures put forward by right-wing President Sebastian Piñera to address the causes of popular discontent.
Lawmakers are scheduled Tuesday to debate a government proposal to boost retirement pensions, but within the existing framework of the AFP system of private pension fund administrators that sees some retirees receive as little as $200 a month.
Mauricio Gutierrez, leader of a union representing workers in the steel, mining and auto industries, denounced the pension bill as “only deepening the current system, which is overwhelmed and failing.”
A spokesman for an anti-AFP group, Luis Medina, pointed out that people at the town-halls are practically unanimous in calling for an end to that system.
“People have deep and legitimate distrust” toward the government, which has “dirty and corrupt hands,” Medina told EFE.
Maria Oyarzun, a hospital orderly, said that the protesters have “many requests for the many things the politicians haven’t done.”
“We have to fight for our children and grandchildren,” she said.
The protesters in Plaza Italia stood their ground Monday despite efforts by the Carabineros to drive them out with tear gas and water cannon.
Over the course of the uprising, activists have developed ways to counteract police tactics, such as hurling tear-gas canister back at the cops, or smothering the bombs under traffic cones.
The proximate cause for Chile’s largest eruption of protests since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship was an increase in transit fares in Santiago, but the grievances quickly expanded to include low pay and pensions, student debt and poor health care, among other issues.
At least 20 people have died since the start of the uprising, while thousands more have suffered injuries.
Piñera’s initial reaction to the protests was to declare a state of emergency and order troops and tanks into the streets. He subsequently changed tack, overhauling his Cabinet and offering a package of reforms.
Activists, however, speak of a complete transformation of the political, social and economic model, starting with the creation of a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution.
Chile’s current constitution is a legacy of the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.