Chile’s congress evacuated as police fend off protesters

SANTIAGO, Chile — Protesters tried to force their way onto the grounds of Chile’s congress Friday, provoking an evacuation of the building in a new challenge to a government struggling to contain deadly unrest over economic hardship.

Police fired tear gas to fend off hundreds of demonstrators on the perimeter as some lawmakers and administrative staff hurried out of the legislative building, which is in the port city of Valparaiso.

Earlier, truck drivers and some public transport operators went on strike around Santiago, the capital. Thousands demonstrated in other parts of the country of 18 million people in a sign that economic concessions by President Sebastian Pinera have failed to ease public anger.

At least 19 people have died in the turmoil that has swept the South American nation. The unrest began as a protest over a 4-cent increase in subway fares and soon morphed into a larger movement over growing inequality in one of Latin America’s wealthiest countries.

The lack of leaders and a list of clear demands in the protest movement show the shortcomings of Chile’s unpopular, discredited political parties, said Marta Lagos, head of Latinobarometro, a non-profit survey group in Chile.

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

She said she expected protesters to become more organized, and that it was unlikely that Pinera, who took office last year, would resign. The protests, Lagos said, are bigger than any that occurred during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet decades ago or under democratic governments that followed.

Pinera served an earlier term as president, from 2010 to 2014.

On Friday, hundreds of trucks drove slowly on a main highway that skirts Santiago, where stone-throwing protesters have fought riot police for more than a week. Some Chileans in cars and motorcycles joined the protest, held to demand an end to private highway tolls.

Most car drivers pay between $35 and $130 a month to use highways around Santiago, depending on how much time they spend on the roads. Truckers pay much more because of the long distances that they travel.

Many Chileans earn between $560 and $760 a month, making it hard to pay for basic needs, let alone drive on the highways.

There will be no further highway toll fee increases this year under Chilean law, Transport Minister Rafael Moreno said.

Operators of some subway lines in Santiago also stopped service, further disrupting a transport network affected by burning and vandalism of stations in some parts of the city.

About 40 per cent of Santiago’s metro was functioning on Friday, though several thousand buses have been deployed in an attempt to make up for the disruption.

Struggling to contain the strife, Pinera’s administration announced increases in the minimum wage and the lowest state pensions, rolled back the subway fare increase and put a 9.2% increase in electricity prices on hold until the end of next year.

Flanked by elderly Chileans, Pinera on Friday signed a measure that would raise minimum pensions of $150 by 20%, an increase that would benefit an estimated 600,000 people.

Most of the demonstrations over the high cost of medicine, water and other basic needs have been peaceful. But instances of arson, looting and alleged brutality by security forces have shocked many in a nation known for relative stability.

According to Chile’s human rights watchdog, more than 2,000 people have been detained and over 500 injured.

The government has declared a state of emergency and imposed curfews in 12 out of Chile’s 16 regions.

Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, now the United Nations’ top official on human rights, will send a three-member team to Chile to examine allegations of violations, spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said in Geneva. The mission, from Oct. 28-Nov. 22, will be based in Santiago and will visit other cities.

Shamdasani said Chilean lawmakers had called for the U.N. office to send a mission and the government also invited it. Bachelet served two terms as Chile’s president and was Pinera’s predecessor.

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