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Chilean President Suspends Fare Hikes; 3 Die In Supermarket Fire As Protests Continue

By Alexander Tuerk NPR

Updated at 4:47 a.m. ET Sunday

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera suspended a subway fare hike Saturday but protests against the increase continued in the country’s capital, Santiago.

Violent protests prompted the metro service to shut down Friday afternoon and left a high-rise engulfed in flames, prompting Piñera to declare a state of emergency in the city.

“I have listened with humility and with great attention to the voice of my compatriots,” Piñera said Saturday, saying the fare hike would be suspended.

Gen. Javier Iturriaga del Campo, who was put in charge of establishing order in the city, announced a nighttime curfew. Soldiers reportedly patrolled the streets for the first time since a military dictatorship ended nearly three decades ago.

As the curfew took effect, thousands marched and gathered in public squares, banging pots and pans, Reuters reported, with fires and looting continuing in parts of the city.

Three people died Saturday after a supermarket near Santiago was looted and burned. Two died at the scene and one died after being taken to a hospital, Mayor Karla Rubilar told reporters.

The Santiago metro network will be closed through Sunday, according to its website, citing “serious damage.” The protesters, mostly high school students, according to The Associated Press, were spurred by the recent public transportation fare hikes. The students struck stations during the Friday afternoon commute, dodging fares, damaging turnstiles and smashing glass, as seen on videos posted online. Large objects, such as a metal sheet, can be seen thrown onto the metro tracks, blocking incoming trains and sending sparks flying as it came into contact with the electrified rail.

The rate hike went into effect Oct. 6, increasing the cost of a metro ride by 4%, according to the AP, partially due to Chile’s dependence on imported energy. Bus fares were also affected. The move comes amid growing discontent among Chileans as the cost of living — gas, groceries, rent — continues to rise without improvement in salaries. Piñera, in contrast, has a net worth of about $2.8 billion, according to Forbes.

“To be honest, I think there’s a big feeling of injustice that goes beyond the thing about the metro and buses,” Cristián Castro, director of the history department at Universidad Diego Portales, said. “The cost of living in Chile has no logic when related to the paychecks you receive at the end of the month, unless you’re part of the upper class. The system has favored too few for too long.”

Students began turnstile-hopping protests as early as Monday, according to the AP, but their demonstrations turned violent Friday.

The first protests on Friday left hundreds of thousands of commuters stranded, according to the AP. Police armed with riot gear, tear gas and batons responded, beating protesters, dragging them out of the stations and making arrests but were met with violent resistance. The AP reported that police withdrew from some stations.

Reuters reported that protesters set fires at metro stations and kiosks, looted stores and barricaded station entrances with bikes, metal bars and other objects. Footage posted online by RT showed a bus enveloped in flames, and the AP reported that police vehicles were attacked with stones.

Protesters expanded the riots and took to the streets, prompting armored military vehicles with water cannons to push back the protesters.

Around 10 p.m. local time, a high-rise building belonging to Enel Chile, an energy company, was firebombed, according to the company’s website. Chile’s “largest electricity group in terms of installed capacity,” the company’s corporate headquarters can be seen in videos burning from the first floor to the top. The company said that the emergency staircase had been targeted, but that all workers were evacuated without injuries.

Late on Friday, Piñera announced a state of emergency in Santiago and surrounding regions during a news conference, handing responsibility of the city’s security to the military and giving it the authority to restrict constitutional rights to assembly and movement. Iturriaga del Campo has been appointed head of national defense, according to Piñera.

“The objective of this state of emergency is very simple, but very deep,” Piñera said.

“Guarantee the rights of each and every one of our countrymen who have been seriously violated by the action of true criminals, who do not respect anything or anyone.”

Piñera added that his government will invoke the State Security Law to prosecute those involved with the attacks on the capital’s metro system. The AP reported that the law carries prison sentences of three to five years.

Still, Piñera said he sympathized with those affected by the rate hikes.

“For that reason, in the coming days, our government is going to summon a transversal dialogue, and we will use all efforts within our reach to be able to mitigate and alleviate the situation of our compatriots,” Piñera said.

In a televised statement on CNN Chile, transportation minister Gloria Hutt said that it was possible for metro service to be restored, gradually, next week.

Social media responded to the protests, with many drawing parallels between the armored vehicles patrolling the streets of Santiago and the repressive Pinochet regime, the military junta in Chile that suppressed opposition through arrests, torture and murder from 1973 to 1990.

Others have compared the protests to similar recent demonstrations in Hong Kong and Catalonia, an autonomous region in Spain.

Alexander Tuerk (@tuerk_alexander) is an intern at Here & Now.

NPR’s James Doubek contributed to this report.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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