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Chilean president rocked by biggest protest yet

October 26, 2019

Over a million people have taken to the streets demanding President Sebastian Pinera's resignation. Nationwide protests are swelling despite government concessions and a state of emergency.

Protesters in Santiago
Image: Reuters/I. Alvarado

An estimated one million people clogged the streets of the Chilean capital on Friday as the government grapples to contain a week of deadly unrest over economic inequality.

Protesters congregated on wide avenues in Santiago as they marched to the capital's central square to join what has been dubbed "the biggest march in Chile" against the government of President Sebastian Pinera. Earlier, truck drivers and some public transport workers went went on strike around Santiago.

"Chile lives a historic day today. The Santiago metropolitan region is the protagonist of a peaceful march of about 1 million people who represent the dream of a new Chile," Mayor Karla Rubilar said in a message on Twitter. 

Read more:  South America's protests fueled by 'extreme' social inequality

In the port city of Valparaiso, the National Congress was evacuated as protesters clashed with police. Thousands more rallied nationwide in the South American country of 18 million.

"The massive, joyful and peaceful march today, where Chileans asked for a fairer and more supportive Chile, opens the road for the future and hope," Pinera said in a tweet on Friday evening. "We have all heard the message. We have all changed. With unity and help from God, we will walk the path to a Chile better for everyone."

At least 19 people have died in a week of protests across the country that spurred the government to declare a state of emergency and implement curfews after rioters torched metro stations and destroyed property. Hundreds of people have been injured and more than 7,000 arrested in the unrest that has brought soldiers onto the streets.

The turmoil was triggered by a small increase in metro fairs in the capital but have morphed into a broader show of discontent with inequality in one of Latin America's richest countries.

Pinera's government has struggled to contain a largely leaderless swelling of anger despite announcing concessions earlier this week. They include an increase in the minimum wage and the lowest state pensions, rolling back the metro fare hike and putting on hold a planned spike in electricity prices.

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

Government out of touch with society?  

In an interview with DW's Spanish service, Foreign Minister Teodoro Ribera sought to deflect blame for the social tensions away from the government.

"The causes are not located in the current government. They probably come from two, three or four governments before," he said.

He also defended the deployment of soldiers despite deaths blamed on security forces.

"Our concern is that human rights are effectively respected. This includes public order so that the public and private property is not destroyed," he said.

Pinera has been in office since last year, but served an earlier term as president from 2010 to 2014. He has an estimated net wealth of $2.8 billion (€2.5 billion), making him one of the richest people in Chile and a target of protesters.

Marta Lagos, the head of Latinobarometro, a non-profit survey group in Chile, told the Associated Press that the lack of leaders and a list of clear demands in the protest movement show the failure of unpopular political parties.

"There is a failure of the system of political parties in its ability to represent society," Lagos said.

She said protesters were likely to become more organized and that Pinera was unlikely to step down.

cw/aw (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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