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Chile: Beyond the Metro Riot

By Sergio Reyes, from Punta Arenas, Chile *

Last March 2018, President Sebastian Pinera, was elected President of Chile. Pinera won the election with 54% of the vote. Let’s remember that Pinera followed the presidency of the Socialist Michelle Bachelet. His government, however, was determined by a Congress where his coalition didn’t have majority. He has managed to pass laws with the support of some members of the previous coalition, New Majority, which crumbled under the presidential election defeat.

Last January 2019, Pinera happily inaugurated a new metro line, which was positively received by many who benefited from this transportation service. On October 4, the Ministry of Transportation announced an increase in the Metro fares. This increase had to be added to increases in utilities and others. Furthermore, for months the government had to deal with confrontations between students and the Carabineros police.

Many other social movements have maintained protests, even preceding Pinera’s administration. Notably, the movement NO+AFP, which is demanding to radically change the private pension system for a true system of social security. Additionally, many scandals of corruption have exploded, including generals in the Armed Forces, and even in the Court system. Income disparity is abysmal. A member of Congress, for instance, earns 15 million pesos a month, while most workers don’t earn more than 600,000 pesos a month.

Last Tuesday, October 15, in response and protest of Metro’s fare increases, students staged a mass fare evasion action, and these continued, carried to the point of destruction of the Metro turnstiles. Meanwhile, the government minister of transportation indicated that the fares could not be changed, since they were determined by an algorithm which was calculated in dollars, and, the dollar exchanged impacted them.

On Wednesday, October 16, the minister of transportation declared that fare evaders would be tried and fined.

On Friday, October 18, riots erupted in the Metro system, with mostly young people seizing the locations and allowing free circulation of people. Shortly, this action mutated to the destruction, looting and eventually paralyzing the Metro system. Guards attempted to vacate the premises and where overrun by people protesting, destroying the gates.

People rage was progressive and downtown Santiago was literally set on fire, while police was unable to control the situation. Other cities in the country also carried out marches and demonstration in solidarity with the struggle of people in Santiago. All through the country, fire barricades were set on the streets and people battled the attempts of police to take control of the areas.

By 00:30 hours of Saturday, October 19, President Pinera decreed state of emergency in Santiago and soon thereafter the general in charge of the region setup a curfew, and the military were on the streets. For a country who suffered years of repression, torture and assassination by the military under Pinochet, this was extremely painful. However, the new generation that is leading this rebellion was not faced by this situation.

On Sunday, state of emergency was extended to other regions of the country. Entire buildings of supermarket chains were looted first and then set on fire, with records of people carrying out merchandise on the streets and with police unable to detain them.

That same day, Pinera announced that it would pass a law to stop Metro fare increases and congress people rushed to approve. By, this time, however, it was clear that this riot went far beyond fare increases and questioned the entire system, including Congress and its left and right politicians. Right wing politicians are claiming for unity, and left politicians elude their own responsibility in administering the state and the entire system inherited from the dictatorship.

By the time this article is written, there are thousands of people detained across the country. The official count of dead people is 11, with 8 of them dying burned in fires while looting. Hundreds have been hurt. With the acute level of struggle, these numbers could be much higher. Today, the largest yet demonstration is taking place in Santiago, and in many other cities. The demand for Pinera’s resignation is growing. The beautiful capitalist bubble they thought they built in Chile has burst, but we don’t know what will replace the system.

* Reyes was a political prisoner under Pinochet at the age of 19. Returned to live in Chile in 2017.