A subway ticket office on fire.
A subway ticket office on fire during a protest October 19 in Santiago. Ramon Monroy/Reuters

An estimated 1.2 million people gathered in Santiago Friday, in what has been called the largest protest in the nation's history. It all began with the Metro.

It’s Wednesday afternoon and hundreds of thousands have taken over Plaza Italia, the heart of Santiago and epicenter of any public protest in the city. They carry signs that ask for major improvements in public health, pensions, and income inequality. Among them, 70-year-old Amelia Rivera lifts a sign criticizing the paltry pension money that Chilean seniors get.

For six days, Rivera has been traveling from San Bernardo, a district in the far south of the city, to protest alongside her family. She says she is there to criticize the inequalities and classism in Chile. Her daughter is a Ph.D. candidate in education, and Amelia thinks she will never be able to get to a high-ranking job position because of her brown skin. She says that people in the poorer “barrios” don’t have a voice in Chilean society.

That is why, she says, many of the subway stations in the most vulnerable areas of the city are now in ashes.

“If they don’t listen to you, what’s next? To shit all over the place,” Rivera says. “People used anger against the subway because it was the only way of getting attention. They don’t listen only with words.”

It’s not clear who burned the stations of Santiago’s subway—known as Metro—or in what context it happened. President Sebastián Piñera accused groups with logistical skills of “a criminal organization,” but public opinion has been skeptical. What is clear is that last Friday, a series of attacks burned down 19 stations, which moved Piñera to declare a state of emergency and a night curfew in the biggest city.

This declaration hasn’t stopped the public demonstrations, which have been met in many cases with violence by the police and armed forces. Over eight days, massive protests across the country—mostly peaceful and spanning socioeconomic class—have been demanding changes in policy, and that the armed forces go back to their barracks. At the time of publication, the National Institute of Human Rights has already recorded 3,162 people detained, 997 wounded, and 19 people dead, 5 of them allegedly by actions of armed forces or police.

This all started after a 3.75 percent fare hike was announced for the public transit system. It was 30 Chilean pesos, less than 5 U.S. cents, but an amount that matters for low-income families who tend to spend between 13 and 28 percent of their budgets on transportation, depending how you calculate it.

Santiago’s Metro system is already one of the most expensive in Latin America, and had seen an increase in fares of almost 100 percent in 12 years. Some workers who start their journeys at dawn to cross the city weren’t pleased with a recent comment by Minister of Economy Juan Andrés Fontaine:“If you wake up earlier, you can have the benefit of the lower fare.”

Founded in 1975, Metro has been seen as a source of pride for many. Its clean trains and stations full of art have been a metaphor for Chile as the “good student” of Latin America, a country that has been able to increase its GDP more than 1,000 percent in 30 years, while many in the region struggle. And, although the subway has suffered from overcrowding since it was integrated into the rest of the transit system in 2007, its constant expansion has been applauded as one of the most important equity efforts in the city, adding extensions not only to the job centers in the business districts, but also to the low-income residential neighborhoods.

But Santiago’s subway expansion also unveiled one of the city’s most intrinsic characteristics and something quite evident for most santiaguinos: its economic segregation.

“We have very high-income groups living in one area of the city and the rest in other areas, like the periphery,” says Paola Jirón, the director of MOVYT, a Chilean inter-university mobility research center. On the subway, these people interact with one another: In one car, it would be typical to see upper-class business people, construction workers from the periphery, students from all across the city, and the recent immigrants from countries like Venezuela and Haiti.

People are able to access better jobs and services, but oftentimes also face long travel times in extremely crowded cars to get there. And what they see when reaching their destination is really different from the neighborhoods, schools, and streets where they live. “Through our mobility we weave together the inequalities that fragment our city,” Jirón says.

And so the fare hike came. On the day it was announced, students started the first “massive evasion,” calling people to jump the turnstiles as a way to protest the increase. For years, high levels of fare evasion—mainly  on buses—has been an obsession for the technocrats in charge of the public transit system in Santiago. Now, angry teenagers had transformed fare evasion into a form of protest. “Evading, not paying, another way of fighting!” was one of the chants of the students.

As the days went by, more people got involved in the protests. While the government refused to change its direction, hundreds of thousands of Chileans also participated in peaceful marches, where they expressed the complexity of public frustration, always centered around the issue of inequality. At the same time, riots and attacks began. According to the latest figures, the total number grew to 21 stations severely burned and around 79 damaged, in addition to several trains, buses, and some buildings, including around 200 supermarkets.

“The protests in Santiago were triggered by the rise of fares, but the whole manifestation is much more complex,” says Paola Jirón. “People became tired of living in an uneven society. We have people making a lot of money, but the majority are profiting very little from the Chilean success.”

For the geographer Juan Correa, who works in the housing non-profit Fundación Vivienda, the subway became a symbol. “People didn’t attack their schools, their medical centers, the daycare centers—all public institutions—but the subway, where they perceived that there was profit,” says Correa. “This was a moment of rage, of stating that this institution was public, but they make me pay and with a hike that is unjustified.”

As the protests escalated, Piñera backtracked and not only called off the fare hike, but also announced some economic measures aimed at reducing inequality. But the marches haven’t lost steam, as protesters have been unsatisfied with the scope of these reforms. On Friday, approximately 1.2 million people gathered once more in Plaza Italia, in what has been called the largest demonstration in the country’s history. On early Saturday, Piñera reacted to the march by lifting the curfew.

Protesters in Santiago on Friday, Oct. 25, 2019. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

Metro has started reopening some stations and analyzing the damage. Although some lines are already working, the state company says that the Line 1 won’t be fully operative until March 2020. Experts have said that all the repairs might take up to a year.

In the meantime, the lower-income population of Santiago’s outskirts will suffer. “The subway is the spine of the transit system of the city and of our mobility as a whole,” says Correa. The two most damaged subway lines are in some of the most impoverished areas of Santiago. “They serve precisely La Florida and Puente Alto, two of the most populated districts of the city, that are of middle and lower income. This is going to affect the quality of life of people, increasing commuting times, stress, and overcrowding.”

Some of them have taken matters in their own hands, and started volunteer squads to clean the burned-down stations. “I think that, although the demands are fair, this wasn’t the way,” one volunteer told TV station T13 on Sunday.  He said that he was there because that station was, in a way, his life: He was born near it, he had played there as a kid, he had traveled in the subway for the first time in 1975, with his mother, on the day of the inauguration of Metro.

As the man spoke, fellow volunteers walking by with shovels and wheelbarrows accumulated piles of ash and debris, their clothes blackened. “I want my daughter tomorrow to be able to take the subway. But I also want for this to be a call for attention for the government. They have to wake up. It’s not just 30 pesos, it’s not just pensions, it’s a sum of things and people have said ‘no more’. Maybe with this the government will listen, but it’s a shame that this has been the way.”

For Correa, deeper issues need to be addressed. “We can’t delegate this social weight only on the subway,” he said as he marched during a protest, pots and pans ringing in the background. “Today we have a structural failure of the state system in so many other services, including health, education, and culture.”

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