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Chile has seen an outbreak of popular protests against rising economic inequality, and its ability to address the issue quickly will be crucial to its ability to hold the global climate summit in December

Protests in Chile present big challenges for Piñera’s government ahead of the UN climate summit (Photo by Carlos Figueroa)

Protests in Chile present big challenges for Piñera’s government ahead of the UN climate summit (Photo by Carlos Figueroa)

Nationwide clashes between protestors and security forces in Chile have piled pressure on President Sebastián Piñera’s government to prove it can peacefully restore order and host world leaders for two major international summits in quick succession.

At least 18 people have died since a 4% hike in metro fares in Chile’s capital Santiago sparked protests against what many Chileans saw as a move by a billionaire president to further enrich private companies while their living standards stagnate and inequality increases.

A state of emergency and curfew were in place last week as the military hit the streets in several cities in an attempt to quell unrest. Many offices remained closed for several days.

Heads of state are due in the capital Santiago in three weeks for the Asia Pacific Economic Forum (APEC), a meeting that precedes international climate talks, known as COP25, in early December. Around 30,000 delegates are expected to attend the climate summit.

Yet with the capital’s metro system severely damaged by protesters – only three of its six lines are running and just a few stations are open – the government has acknowledged that full transport operations will not be restored for months.

“The logistical challenges are gigantic,” said Nicole Jenne, an international relations professor at Santiago’s Catholic University.

“But both [events] are a huge opportunity, not only [for the government] to improve its tarnished international reputation but to show that it’s taking seriously what people in the streets are calling for,” she added.

Protest stoke COP25 fears

In a move Jenne said was designed to address international concerns, two-time Chilean president and current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet sent a team to investigate alleged abuses since Piñera declared the country at war with “a violent enemy”.

Piñera has since apologised to citizens and agreed a set of economic and social policies designed to ease tension, including an increase in the universal basic pension and the minimum wage, and reneging on recent electricity hikes. On Saturday, he asked his entire cabinet to resign.

While Piñera has insisted that APEC and COP25 will go ahead as planned, and introduced extra security measures on October 24 to ensure their smooth running, protests could continue, according to sociologist Augusto Varas.

Maintaining the social order during the two events will depend on the proper implementation of Piñera’s new Social Agenda and the police’s capacity to control demonstrations without the army’s help, Varas said.

“A new state of emergency during these two meetings would not be acceptable and another mass outburst would mean they’d be cancelled.”

The Chilean government has already faced calls for COP25 to be relocated or boycotted.

Ximena Rincón, a Chilean senator, said COP25 co-host Costa Rica should stage the event, while French politician Alexis Corbiére suggested the national government not attend so long as Chile’s military is outside the barracks.

However, Carlos Rodríguez, Costa Rica’s environment minister ruled out his country hosting the COP, saying there have been no formal proposals.

“We expect the event to be in Chile and to go ahead as normal,” he said.

The UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which along with Chile organises COP25, said it has received guarantees from the government over planned events.

Yet according to Cristóbal Bellolio, a Chilean political analyst, “the scenario has radically changed”.

“It’s unclear whether we can go back to normal and start thinking about the two upcoming summits in Santiago again,” he said.

On China’s attendance at APEC, foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told a press conference last week: “As we are following the situation in Chile, we believe the Chilean government can properly handle it and ensure a smooth and safe meeting.”

US President Donald Trump said earlier this month he expected a resolution to long-running trade tensions with China at the APEC meeting, although US officials have since said this could take longer.

Civil society participation

Trump’s mere presence at APEC in Chile has special significance and could spark protests. COP25, meanwhile, is bigger, has widespread citizen involvement, and would be accompanied by less “aggressive” demonstrations that demand more assertive policies to combat climate change, Varas said.

Jenne said that the climate movement is a bottom-up process, but that APEC has not properly fulfilled commitments to involve civil society in decision-making, nor focus on young people and gender equality.

Yet even during COP25, the prospect of tension between the Chilean government and social groups could remain high.

The group Civil Society for Climate Action (SCAC, in the Spanish acronym), which includes several Chilean NGOs, said the current situation made dialogue on climate impossible.

“It is not viable to discuss the future of the planet, climate justice and each country’s commitments (known as Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDC’s), as long as Chile has broken with the rule of law and sent soldiers to contain protests over social discontent, generating panic, murders, and cases of torture,” it wrote in a press release issued Friday.

Varas said civil society groups might take advantage of the two global meetings to denounce human rights violations committed before, during and since the demonstrations.

As COP host, the Chilean government would do well to engage with non-governmental groups, who could help advance negotiations, Jenne said.

“The Chilean government can make an important step forward by committing to civil society’s demands, and pushing – even unilaterally – concrete measures at COP25.”


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