By EVA VERGARA, Associated Press
SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Demonstrators returned to Chile’s streets on Thursday, dissatisfied with economic concessions announced by the government in a bid to curb a week of deadly violence.
President Sebastián Piñera acknowledged that the steps taken to ease public anger won’t fully address the grievances of many people in the country of 18 million.
“But we also know that it constitutes important relief,” said the president, whose concessions include plans to put a 9.2% increase in electricity prices on hold until the end of next year.
Piñera’s administration is struggling to contain unrest that began as a protest over a 4-cent increase in subway fares and soon morphed into a larger movement over rising water and medical costs and other hardships.
Hundreds of demonstrators began gathering in city squares in Chile on Thursday, a day after huge protests and riots in the capital, Santiago. Some residents spent the morning clearing debris from the unrest.
At least 18 people have died in violence that has swept the South American nation. Most protests have been peaceful, but instances of arson, looting and alleged brutality by security forces have shocked many in a country known for relative stability.
Much of the discontent centers on growing inequality in one of Latin America’s wealthiest nations. The involvement of multiple sectors of society, including students and workers, poses a complex challenge for a government that says it is hard-pressed to deal with rising oil prices and a weaker currency.
“One cannot stay on the margin in an unequal system,” said protester Alfonso Riquelme. He cast the protest movement as a struggle for people’s rights, recalling resistance to the dictatorship under Gen. Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1990.
About 40,000 people were killed, tortured or imprisoned for political reasons during the Pinochet era.
In contrast, Piñera was democratically elected to lead a civilian government, though the spectacle of soldiers on Chile’s streets in recent days has stirred ugly memories of a darker time in the country’s history.
In the past few days, millions of students were unable to attend classes, several subway stations were shut, and long lines wound from gas stations and supermarkets after many stores were torched or otherwise destroyed.
In an attempt to contain the protests, the government this week announced increases in the minimum wage and the lowest state pensions. It also rolled back the subway fare increase, though some protesters have described the concessions as too little, too late.
Cabinet ministers will contact different sectors of society to hear “the voice and message that Chileans have been sending to us in recent days,” Piñera said.
Even so, protesters view Piñera, who built a huge fortune in business, as a symbol of the political elites they see as exempt from the economic pressures of daily life.
The protesters’ agenda has expanded to include demands for improvements in education, health care and wages.
Many Chileans feel left out of the country’s economic gains. Education, medicine and water are costly, state pensions are low, and many families live on just $550 to $700 a month in earnings.