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Chile strike goes ahead despite Pinera reforms

October 24, 2019

A general strike went ahead in Chile, despite President Sebastian Pinera announcing a social reforms package aimed at quelling the protests. Students, copper workers, teachers and healthcare workers joined the march.

Chile Proteste in Santiago
Image: picture-alliance/AA/M. Emin Canik

Tens of thousands of Chileans marched in Santiago, the capital city, as well as elsewhere in the country on Wednesday. 

Students and trade union leaders headed the demonstration, which took place even though President Sebastian Pinera announced a series of social reforms in a bid to quell days of violent protests. Protesters waved banners and national flags and shouted "Chile has woken up."

A crowd of protesters in Santiago, waving banners and national flags
Tens of thousands gathered in Chile's capital to protest the state's economic modelImage: Reuters/I. Alvarado

The first day of the two-day general strike was largely peaceful.

Some protesters erected flaming barricades and clashed with riot police. Police deployed water cannon and fired rubber bullets and tear gas at the protesters.

Two supermarkets were set on fire in the north of Chile, and a hotel was looted near Italia square in Santiago, broadcaster 24 Horas reported.

A supermarket ablaze in Antofagasta
The general strike in Santiago was largely peaceful, but protesters set a supermarket on fire in Antofagasta Image: Imago Images/Aton Chile/C. Rudolffi

Read more: Opinion: Chile protests shine light on economic inequality

Chile's largest copper union joins protest

Codelco, the Chilean state mining company, had to shut one mine and drastically reduce operations at a smelter, after workers joined the strike. Six of Codelco's eight divisions were carrying on with the "majority of their operations," the company said in a statement.

The Copper Workers Federation (FTC), which unionizes workers from Codelco, announced late on Tuesday that its workers would join the strike.

Police use a water cannon against protesters in Santiago
Police used a water cannon and fired rubber bullets at Chileans participating in the general strikeImage: Reuters/I. Alvarado

Later on Wednesday the FTC trade union called off the strike. They agreed to meet with government officials to improve workers conditions.

On Tuesday the FTC and the National Grouping of Fiscal Employees, among other unions, had continued to back the strike, even after Pinera had announced a social reform package.

The trade unionists who called the two-day strike initially wanted Pinera to discuss the proposed social reforms with grassroots organizations and for him to remove soldiers from the streets.

Reforms announced by Pinera on Tuesday include an increase in the monthly pension, raising the minimum wage and canceling a 92% rise in electricity rates due to take effect next month.

A protester stands alone holding a sign in the middle of clouds of smoke on the streets of Santiago
Protests on Wednesday divided the public opinionImage: AFP/P. Vera

Reform package and strike divide opinions

Chileans responded differently to Pinera's reform package. Some thought that they were not good enough, but others thought that they were a move in the right direction.

Venezuela's socialist president, Nicolas Maduro, on Wednesday celebrated the strikes in Chile, saying that they represented a victory in a battle "to dismantle the neoliberal model."

Pope Francis, an Argentinian, expressed concern over the protest and urged for dialogue.

Read more: What's behind wealthy Chile's deadly protests?

A demonstrator shows a bullet case in Santiago
A demonstrator shows a bullet case in Santiago. Security forces face criticism for use of excessive violence against protestersImage: AFP/M. Bernetti

Concerns over state violence

About 20,000 soldiers are patrolling the streets, nearly 200 people have been injured and some 5,000 have been arrested in the six days of protests.

The UN and human rights groups have expressed concerns about excess force used by police and military  after the government ordered a military curfew.

The demonstrations began after students protested the government's decision to increase subway fares in the capital.

The fare hike was canceled, but Chileans continued protesting widespread inequality across the country.

kmm/se (dpa, AP, Reuters)

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