SANTIAGO: Thousands of Chileans flooded the streets of Santiago and other cities in a general strike on Wednesday, upping the pressure on beleaguered President Sebastien Pinera after days of social unrest that left 18 dead.
Students, professors and state workers walked off the job at the urging of the country’s largest union, ignoring a package of measures announced by Pinera aimed at quelling the violence.
“THE STRIKE IS ON! We say it loud and clear: enough of the increases and abuses,” said the Workers’ United Center of Chile, which organized the two-day action alongside about 20 other groups.
In the capital Santiago, police used water cannons to disperse protesters.
“Chile has awakened,” read the sign of one protester — a slogan that has been popular since the protests against social and economic woes, and a yawning gap between rich and poor, began last week.
The country, usually one of the most stable in Latin America, has experienced its worst violence in decades since protests against a now-scrapped hike in metro fares escalated dramatically on Friday.
A four-year-old child and a man were killed on Tuesday when a drunk driver rammed into a crowd of demonstrators, Interior Undersecretary Rodrigo Ubilla said.
A third person died after being beaten by police, according to the victim’s family.
The armed forces announced a nighttime curfew for the fifth day running, although at just six hours, Wednesday night’s is the shortest yet.
In an address to the nation late on Tuesday, Pinera apologized for failing to anticipate the outbreak of social unrest.
“I recognize this lack of vision,” Pinera said after a meeting with some of Chile’s opposition leaders.
Beyond the dead, another 269 people have been injured and about 1,900 have been arrested, according to the National Institute for Human Rights.
Having initially taken a confrontational line — declaring that Chile was “at war” and imposing a state of emergency in Santiago and most of Chile’s 16 regions — Pinera has rapidly changed tack and sought cross-party support to find a solution.
He says he will increase the universal basic pension by 20 percent, cancel a recent 9.2 percent increase in electricity bills and propose a law that would see the state cover the costs of expensive medical treatment.
He also pledged a state subsidy to increase the minimum wage from 301,000 to 350,000 pesos ($482) a month and said the government would introduce health insurance for medications, which is among the most expensive in the region.
Chileans were unconvinced by the promises.
“It seems like a joke to me. Does he think with this the people will calm down?” protester Ximena Gutierrez told AFP.
“No, they won’t calm down, this will continue because we won’t be silenced!”
After widespread scenes of violence, destruction, arson and looting last week, protests have become more peaceful this week, particularly in Santiago.
But it’s the worst violence to hit Chile since the country returned to democracy after the 1973-1990 right-wing dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet.
Some 20,000 police and troops have been deployed.
Strike organizers issued a statement demanding that the government end the state of emergency and send troops back to their barracks.
The country’s powerful copper mine workers’ unions joined the strike movement, but the state copper company insisted that operations continued nonetheless.
Chile is the largest producer of copper in the world, much of which is sold to China.
Despite 2.5 percent growth, ordinary Chileans are deeply unhappy.
In a poll by Ipsos, two thirds of respondents said their economic, health and pensions situation was “unequal and unfair.”
“Pinera has always been a liar and now… he is asking for forgiveness,” said 23-year-old Carlos Morales.
Before Pinera’s announcement, one of Chile’s largest conglomerates, Quinenco, promised to increase its minimum salaries to 500,000 pesos a month from January 1 — 60 percent more than the current minimum wage.
Chile’s big business conglomerates are one of the major factors in the huge wealth disparity that has angered protesters.
Life in the capital has been returning to normal, with three of seven metro lines open on Wednesday.
More than half of Santiago’s 136 metro stations suffered heavy damage during last week’s protests and remained guarded by soldiers.
Shops and businesses — even banks — appeared to be reopening, but some Santiago-area schools were still closed.
LATAM, South America’s largest airline, said more than 98 percent of its flights to and from Santiago’s international airport took off following dozens of cancelations during days of chaos caused by the curfews.
Chile’s Central Bank dropped interest rates from 2.0 percent to 1.75 percent and said the crisis would affect the country’s economy.