Explained: Why Chile is in turmoil over metro fare hikes

Mehr Gill
While 1,500 people have been arrested over 60 police officers and 11 civilians have been injured. (AP Photo)

A rise in the prices of subway tickets has triggered violent demonstrations in Chile's capital Santiago and other cities. Since then, over three people have died in supermarkets fires triggered by the riots. An increase in the subway fares was announced over two weeks ago and have since been reversed by President Sebastián Piñera on Saturday night.

The protests were started by school children and students to avoid paying an increased fare for using public transportation.

Since Friday they have turned into violent protests. According to some reports, protestors set fire to buses, buildings, metro stations and have looted shops.

This will be the first state of emergency in Santiago since 1973 when military dictator Augusto Pinochet seized control of the country and ruled it for 17 years. Troops were deployed on the streets of Santiago for the first time since 1990 when democracy returned to the country after Pinochet’s democracy ended.

On Sunday night, during an unscheduled speech from the military headquarters, Piñera said, “We are at war with a powerful, relentless enemy that respects nothing or anyone and is willing to use violence and crime without any limits.”

Chilean consulting firm Cadem reported on Monday that according to an analysis carried out by them between October 16 and 18, Piñera’s approval ratings have gone down by two points and were at 29 per cent while his disapproval ratings have gone up to 58 per cent.

Chile protests: What has happened since then?

On Sunday night, Piñera declared a state of emergency in Chilean cities located in the north and south of the country. The fare hike was announced on October 6 under which the prices of bus and metro tickets were to increase by $0.04 and $0.1.

According to a report in the Associated Press, after meetings with the heads of the legislature and the judiciary on Sunday, Piñera said that he aimed “to reduce excessive inequalities, inequities abuses, that persist in our society”.

“I have listened with humility to the voice of my countrymen and I will not be afraid to continue listening to that voice. We are going to suspend the rise in Metro tickets, ” Piñera said on Saturday.

Furthermore, over 10,000 soldiers and police officers have been patrolling the streets of the capital as a state of emergency has been imposed in over six Chilean cities as protests continue.

While 1,500 people have been arrested over 60 police officers and 11 civilians have been injured.

On Sunday, Chile’s Chamber of Deputies approved the bill that will freeze the rise in the rates of public transport.

The text of the bill says, "The public passenger transport system is at the service of all and, especially, of the middle class and the most vulnerable, who are very unfairly suffering the consequences of unacceptable acts of vandalism.”

Even so, public transport systems are only partially operational in the capital. La Tercera reported on Monday that only one metro line would be operational from 7 am to 8 pm in the capital. However, bus services will continue as usual, unless taking a detour becomes necessary. At Santiago’s Arturo Merino Benitez International Airport thousands of travellers have been stranded since airlines have either cancelled or delayed flights since the unrest.

Chile: Why are students protesting?

On October 19, The Santiago Times reported that of the increase in transport fares, the increase in metro fares that are considered to be the most expensive in the region, especially by students who have spearheaded the protests.

The ticket prices were increased due to an increase in the costs of maintenance. Since Chile does not produce its own oil and imports it, the prices for gasoline, electricity and elevated public transportation are high.

The protests started on Monday, when “hundreds of young people” mobbed stations in Santiago due to a 4 per cent increase in subway fares.

The reaction to the hike was exacerbated after a video grab of Pinera celebrating his grandson’s birthday at a pizza parlour in one of Santiago’s residential areas circulated on the internet.

An editorial in La Tercera pointed out the source of the unrest, “The complex situation today is the most obvious consequence of the disconnection that exists between the political class and the real concerns of the population.”

Furthermore, while Chile is one of the more stable South American countries, it faces problems in the areas of healthcare, low wages, cost and quality of education, welfare, and cost of living among others.

A text posted on the website of The Century, representing the posture of the country’s trade unions, students, teachers and civil society groups, said that the hike in metro prices was a trigger for the “rage” and “discontentment” over the government’s other policies spanning services, wages and the “commercialisation of social rights”.

Ironically, just a few days ago the president had proclaimed that Chile was an “oasis” of calm and tranquillity.

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