Hundreds of thousands of protesters marched peacefully in Chile's capital Friday, intensifying pressure on a government struggling to contain deadly unrest over economic hardship.
The huge throng surged towards a central plaza as participants blew whistles, banged pots and pans and carried Chilean flags and posters demanding change. The diverse crowd included students, workers, parents and their children.
"All of Chile is marching here," Santiago Mayor Karla Rubilar said, adding that there was hope as well as sadness among the demonstrators.
The official crowd estimate was 1 million, the mayor said.
"After what we saw in the streets of Santiago today, it's hard to imagine a way forward that does not involve" the resignation of President Sebastián Piñera and new elections, said Jenny Pribble, associate professor of political science at the University of Richmond in the United States.
Also Friday, protesters tried to force their way onto the grounds of Chile's congress, provoking an evacuation of the building. 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 Valparaíso.
Earlier, truck drivers and some public transport operators went on strike around Santiago. Thousands demonstrated in other parts of the country of 18 million people in a sign that economic concessions by Piñera 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 four-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 nonprofit survey group in Chile.
"There is a failure of the system of political parties in its ability to represent society," Lagos said.
Speaking before the huge protest in Santiago, she said she expected protesters to become more organised, and that it was unlikely that Piñera, 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.
Piñera 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 US$35 and US$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 US$560 and US$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 percent 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, Piñera's administration announced increases in the minimum wage and the lowest state pensions, rolled back the subway fare increase and put a 9.2 percent increase in electricity prices on hold until the end of next year.
Flanked by elderly Chileans, Piñera on Friday signed a measure that would raise minimum pensions of US$150 by 20 percent, 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 October 28 to November 22, will be based in Santiago and will visit other cities.
Shamdasani said Chilean lawmakers had called for the UN office to send a mission and the government also invited it. Bachelet served two terms as Chile's president and was Piñera's predecessor.
by Eva Vergara, AP