SANTIAGO – Protests in Chile reached unprecedented levels on Friday when around 1.2 million people gathered for a historic demonstration in the country’s capital to demand the resignation of President Sebastian Piñera and denounce his right-wing government’s austerity policies.
After a week of demonstrations, the capital’s Plaza Italia square was overflowing as thousands more stood on neighboring streets in the largest protest in Chile since the 1990 fall of dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The demonstration was set to start at 5:00 pm, and within an hour, the crowd had swelled to more than 1 million, according to the municipal government.
Even the two Copa America titles that Chile won in 2015 and 2016 failed to bring together so many people in the iconic square, where on Friday Chileans arrived from the most distant parts of the city in large numbers.
The most emotive moment of demonstration was when a giant national flag was unfurled, along with a banner reading “Chile desperto” (Chile woke up), while another huge banner at a nearby building in the square said “For the dignity of our people, to the street without fear.”
The protest was peaceful for hours until riot police launched tear gas and the crowd dispersed with most going home before curfew set in.
Some hooded men set fire to the entrances of the Baquedano station of the Santiago Metro, where the National Institute of Human Rights had reported an alleged torture center in the preceding days.
Another group looted a nearby supermarket, the latest in the more than 330 supermarkets that have been looted and burned since Friday last week.
From the Palacio de La Moneda, the seat of the Chilean government, Piñera followed up on Friday’s events, and took to social media while ignoring calls for his resignation.
“The massive, joyful and peaceful march today, where Chileans ask for a more just and supportive Chile, opens great paths for the future and hope,” the president posted on Twitter.
“We’ve all heard the message. We’ve all changed. With unity and help from God, we will walk that path for a Chile that is better for all,” he added.
The widespread unrest began last Friday with a student protest in Santiago over a since-canceled subway fare hike and evolved with Chileans expressing their anger over low pensions and salaries and the high price of electricity, gas, university education and health care.
The government declared a state of emergency, imposing curfews in several cities and put the military in charge of public order.
On top of protesters’ demands is now outrage against the government for repression and excesses allegedly committed by law enforcement against the population over the past week.
So far, the ongoing protests have left at least 19 dead, six of them foreigners and five allegedly at the hands of security forces. The number of people wounded is at least 600 and the number of detainees exceed 6,000, according to the public prosecutor’s office.
During the eight days of protests, losses from the disturbances have amounted to $1.4 billion, according to the Santiago Chamber of Commerce, of which $900 million were from destruction and looting of 25,000 commercial premises, and another $500 million from lost profits.
Meanwhile, the United Nations began preparing an inspection mission into the actions of Chilean security forces during the protests, at the request of former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, who is currently UN high commissioner for human rights.
Chile’s Congress, located in the central port city of Valparaiso, was also 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.
Legislators were debating some of the measures Piñera has announced in a thus far fruitless attempt to appease the protesters.
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.”