SANTIAGO – The largest protest in Chile since the 1990 fall of dictator Augusto Pinochet unfolded Friday in the center of Santiago, where more than 1 million people gathered to denounce the right-wing government’s austerity policies.
A week after the start of demonstrations that have seen 19 people die, the capital’s Plaza Italia square was overflowing as thousands more stood on neighboring streets.
The demonstration was set to start at 5:00 pm and within an hour, the crowd had swelled to more than a million, according to the municipal government.
Some in the multitude held up a giant banner reading “Chile woke up,” a phrase that has become the unofficial motto of the movement demanding the resignation of the country’s billionaire president, Sebastian Piñera.
The widespread unrest began last Friday with a student protest in Santiago over a since-canceled subway fare hike.
Protest escalated into violent incidents that have left 19 dead – some killed by police and soldiers deployed after the government declared a state of emergency, imposes curfews in several cities and put the military in charge of public order.
During the days of protests, Chileans have expressed their anger over low pensions and salaries and the high price of electricity, gas, university education and health care.
Another large sign displayed at Friday’s demonstration called for the convening of a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, replacing the one imposed on the country by Pinochet in 1980.
Chile’s Congress, located in the central port city of Valparaiso, was evacuated earlier Friday after demonstrators caused disturbances in the vicinity of the building.
The speaker of the lower house, Ivan Flores, ordered the suspension of the legislative session after a group of protesters gathered outside the front of the building and unsuccessfully tried to force their way past members of the Carabineros, Chile’s militarized national police.
“This is a high-risk situation. I asked the (legislative) officials to leave the building, and I assume the responsibility,” Flores said.
Legislators were debating some of the measures Piñera has announced in a thus far fruitless attempt to appease the protesters, who are calling for structural changes in the areas of pensions, health care and education to promote greater equality.
In unveiling a battery of measures on Tuesday night, from pension hikes to the scrapping of a planned electricity price hike, the head of state apologized to the nation for a “lack of vision.”
Friday morning, hundreds of vehicles stormed onto the expressways that circle and criss-cross Santiago, forming a slow caravan that snarled traffic.
While getting around the city had been complicated over the past week due to paralyzed subway lines and reduced urban transport, the expressway protest made it nearly impossible for motorists to drive into downtown Santiago.
According to the latest figures from the National Human Rights Institute (INDH), an autonomous public agency that monitors the actions of security forces, the number of arrests stands at 2,840.
The week-long protests have left 582 people injured, 295 of them struck by rubber bullets or tear-gas canisters.
The INDH also has verified reports of torture and other abuses by security forces in response to the demonstrations.
A United Nations mission will travel to Chile next week to investigate possible human rights violations during the protests.