SANTIAGO, Chile — Tens of thousands of protesters swarmed Chile’s capital setting up fiery barricades and clashing with riot police Wednesday, as an apology and promises of economic reform from President Sebastián Piñera failed to calm unrest and rioting that has led to at least 18 deaths.
Trade unionists in the world’s top copper-producing country joined demonstrators in a general strike.
The movement started with anger at a small rise in subway fares, but blew up last week into protests demanding improvements in education, health care and wages in one of Latin America’s wealthiest, but most unequal nations.
Many protesters in Santiago waved the national flag and shouted: “Chile has woken up!”
Police responded to stone-throwing demonstrators by spraying water cannons and firing rubber bullets and tear gas. Similar scenes were repeated in towns and cities all along the long, narrow South American country of 18 million people.
Millions of students were still unable to attend classes, several subway stations were shut and long lines wound from gas stations and supermarkets after many stores were torched or destroyed.
The unrest erupted last week when students began to jump subway station turnstiles to protest a 4-cent subway fare rise that the Chilean government said was needed to cope with rising oil prices and a weaker currency.
Most of the protests have been peaceful with demonstrators of all ages banging pots to demand reforms. But the unrest also involved riots, arson and looting that have wracked Chile for six days, nearly paralyzing a country long seen as an oasis of stability.
“Today we’re protesting all of our discontent against these politicians who have been fooling us. The raise in the subway fare was just the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Italo Tarsetti, a taekwondo teacher standing among demonstrators honking horns and banging on pots, a common form of protest in Latin America.
Faced with the mounting unrest, Piñera on Tuesday night announced economic reforms that include increases in the minimum wage and lowest state pensions. But many said the 69-year-old billionaire businessman reacted late and the announcement failed to calm anger in the streets.
“These measures are absurd. It’s handing out crumbs to the people,” said Magdalena Bravo, a demonstrator who said she had lost her job as a school teacher.
“There are many reasons why I have joined there protests,” she said. “The inequality is tremendous. There are families of five, six people living with miserable salaries.”
The protests have divided Chileans. Many want a reduction of Chile’s sharp inequality, a wider distribution of its copper wealth and major changes in taxes and education reform, but they condemn the destruction.
“You don’t know what can happen to you,” said retiree Magaly Munoz. “I understand that people are dissatisfied, but they can’t break into your home and loot businesses. I can’t support that.”
Human rights groups expressed concerns about how security forces have handled the protests after the government ordered a military curfew. It was the first such curfew — other than for natural disasters — imposed since Chile returned to democracy in 1990 following a bloody 17-year dictatorship.
“We’re worried,” José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, told The Associated Press. “The images that we’ve received from credible sources, trustworthy sources, show that there has been an excess of force both by police as well as some soldiers.”
About 20,000 soldiers are patrolling the streets, nearly 200 people have been injured and some 5,000 have been arrested.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also criticized what it said is excessive use of force by security forces as well as the “violent acts committed by civilians” in the protests. It called for dialogue to hear “people’s legitimate demands.”
Lawmaker Camila Vallejo, a former leader in mass student protests demanding free education, joined a march to Congress calling for authorities to lift a curfew being enforced by the military.
For many people, the sight of soldiers on the streets brings back bad memories of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, when about 40,000 people were killed, tortured or imprisoned for political reasons.
Still, many have defied the curfew.
“People are no longer afraid to face the military. They lost the fear,” said Angélica Salazar, who works at a pizzeria.
After the protests erupted, Piñera declared a state of emergency and rolled back the subway hike.
He said Chile is “at war,” but took a more conciliatory tone after being criticized for the comment. He also has apologized for the failures of his and previous governments on the left and right to curb inequality.
The economic agenda he announced Tuesday night calls for increasing the lowest monthly pensions from $151 to $181, raising the monthly minimum wage from $413 to $481 and rescinding a 92% rise in electricity rates scheduled to take effect next month. It would also increase taxes for anyone earning more than $11,000 a month.
Many Chileans feel left out of the country’s economic gains. Education and medicines are costly, water has been privatized since the dictatorship, state pensions are low and many families live on just $550 to $700 a month in earnings.
“Piñera’s more conciliatory tone is a step in the right direction, but the proposal on its own is unlikely to suffice,” said Jenny Pribble, associate professor of political science at the University of Richmond.
She said that while it would boost pensions and set a minimum income, the package doesn’t address the structure of the country’s health and pension systems.
“This is a point of concern for the protesters and the president must signal that he is open to a social dialogue that would, at a minimum, debate the possibility of abandoning the privatized logic,” she said.
Associated Press journalists Paul Byrne and Luis Andres Henao in Buenos Aires, Argentina, contributed to this report.
Eva Vergara, The Associated Press