Chile: Surprising violence

Key sectors: all

Key risks: looting; arson attacks; violent clashes; civil unrest; policy continuity

Chile’s latest wave of civil unrest – the largest and most violent since the country’s return to democracy in 1990 – caught many by surprise. The speed at which the security situation devolved since violence flared up on 18 October, as well as the intensity, geographical scope, techniques and organisation of the protest movement have arguably not been seen in decades. Considered one of the most stable and prosperous countries in the region, Chile is serving as stark reminder of the pervasive effects of inequality. What started as student-led protests against a metro fare hike in the capital Santiago escalated, radicalising into widespread anger over inequality and rising living costs and putting unprecedented pressure on the government to swiftly agree concessions to quell the violence and return to relative calm. Almost two weeks since the upheaval began, such calm has not yet been restored. Looting, arson attacks, clashes with the security forces, transport disruption and strikes including in the crucial mining sector will remain a risk while those protesting perceive that more concessions could be made to address grievances that now have to be heard.

Several sectors have seen their assets and operations particularly affected. The damages to Santiago’s metro system were estimated at US$300m, a figure that might increase as incidents were still being reported on 28 October. More than half of the system’s 136 stations have suffered considerable damage. Some carriages were completely destroyed by fires, as well as at least 15 public buses. Looting was reported in Santiago and other cities such as Valparaiso, Rancagua, Concepcion and La Serena. Retail outlets, over 60 supermarkets and several warehouses and distribution plants including one belonging to CocaCola were targeted. Arson attacks and vandalism against government buildings and the headquarters of power company Enel were amongst the incidents that prompted Pinera to declare a state of emergency (SoE) for Santiago, which was later extended to other areas, on 19 October. On that day a nightly curfew that would be extended for a week was also imposed on the capital for the first time since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. The SoE, the military on the streets, the curfew and the cancellation of the metro fare hike were not enough to stop the protests, which have persisted and expanded.

At least 20 people – almost all of them looters – have been killed and 3,000 detained since 18 October. The military crackdown on protesters and the imposition of consecutive curfews in Santiago, Valparaiso and Concepcion led demonstrators to demand that Pinera lift such measures and address alleged human rights abuses, which the UN has been tasked with investigating. On 25 October an estimated 1 million people peacefully demonstrated in Santiago in one the largest protests in the country’s history. The military lifted the curfew the following day and Pinera announced the end of the SoE at midnight on 27 October. Nevertheless, and despite also cancelling electricity fare hikes, promising to impose a minimum wage, increase pensions and change eight cabinet ministers including the Interior and Finance ministers, violent clashes, looting and arson attacks continued on 28 October.

Protesters have seen that violence and persistence achieve results. Further concessions and increased political consensus towards reform will be needed to appease those who now openly claim that Chile should – as it probably will – be a different country once the protests end.