Chilean leader apologises, pledges economic measures

Protesters in the Chilean capital Santiago turning violent on Tuesday, the fifth straight day of street unrest which erupted over a now suspended hike in subway ticket prices. The protests have spread to cities and towns, as people rally against low
Protesters in the Chilean capital Santiago turning violent on Tuesday, the fifth straight day of street unrest which erupted over a now suspended hike in subway ticket prices. The protests have spread to cities and towns, as people rally against low wages, rising prices, miserable pensions, poor health services and income inequality.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
President Sebastian Pinera speaking to his fellow Chileans on Tuesday in a bid to calm tensions over mounting economic and political crises.
President Sebastian Pinera speaking to his fellow Chileans on Tuesday in a bid to calm tensions over mounting economic and political crises.

Pinera tries to placate protesters angry over income inequality

SANTIAGO • After days of protests that have virtually paralysed Chile, President Sebastian Pinera has asked for forgiveness, announcing a set of conciliatory measures in the hope of defusing the country's worst political crisis in 30 years.

Mr Pinera, in a televised address on Tuesday night, acknowledged that his government and its predecessors had failed to perceive the widespread anger in Chile over economic inequality, which has fed the leaderless, spontaneous protests and violence that have spread through the country since last Friday, leaving at least 15 people dead.

"I acknowledge this and I ask for forgiveness for this shortsightedness," Mr Pinera said.

What began last week as a student demonstration in Santiago, the capital, over a subway fare hike has escalated into five straight days of protests in cities and towns across Chile, against low wages, rising prices, miserable pensions, poor health services and profound income inequality, in a country that has been touted as a regional model of economic success.

While many demonstrators have been peaceful, others have looted and attacked or burned subway stations, buses, supermarkets, banks, pharmacies, public utility services and government offices.

Last Friday night, the government declared a state of emergency in the capital and later did so in at least 15 other cities, imposing curfews and putting the army in charge of security.

In addition to the 15 people known to have been killed in the unrest, the National Human Rights Institute said 226 had been wounded.

Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) yesterday advised Singaporeans to defer non-essential travel to the Chilean cities affected by the state of emergency.

In his speech on Tuesday night, Mr Pinera promised an immediate increase of 20 per cent in government-subsidised pensions, new insurance programmes to cover catastrophic illnesses and medication, as well as a guaranteed minimum monthly income of US$483 (S$659). He also pledged to cancel a 9.2 per cent electricity price hike that had been planned for later this year, with a cap on future increases; and a new, 40 per cent tax bracket for people earning more than US$11,000 a month.

 
 
 

He also said there would be pay cuts for members of Congress and the highest-paid public servants. Term limits will be established, and the number of lawmakers in Congress will be reduced, he said.

However, the measures seemed unlikely to satisfy the demonstrators. Their discontent is not just about prices and salaries but about what they say is a crisis of legitimacy in the country's institutions, including corruption in business and politics and what they consider to be a failure to protect people ravaged by the free-market economy.

Ms Claudia Mix, a congresswoman with the leftist Frente Amplio coalition, dismissed Mr Pinera's proposals as "stingy", saying on Twitter that "Chile needs a new social pact with greater political and social democracy".

The centre-left president of the Senate, Mr Jaime Quintana, was a bit more positive about Mr Pinera's proposals, saying that although they do not "touch substantial aspects of the model, but after so much silence there are finally signs that a government still exists".

Many of the proposals involve fast-tracking legislation that has been stalled in Congress.

On Tuesday - a day after lawmakers approved a freeze on subway fare increases in record time - the Lower House scrapped its agenda and began debating a Bill, introduced by Communist legislators, that would reduce the workweek from 44 to 40 hours, something the government adamantly opposes.

 
 

A congressional committee has also been discussing a Bill, shelved six years ago, that would cut legislators' salaries by 25 per cent.

The protests, far from subsiding, have spread to small towns. "Chile has awoken", reads a slogan sprayed on walls throughout the country.

In Santiago, dozens of peaceful demonstrations were held on Tuesday, and at 8pm, as on each of the past five nights, the city resounded with chants and the banging of pots and pans.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2019, with the headline 'Chilean leader apologises, pledges economic measures'. Print Edition | Subscribe