Social Unrest in Chile Persists: Reasons Behind COP25’s Relocation
Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced Wednesday, October 30, 2019 that Chile will no longer host the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference due to large scale protests that the country has failed to curb. The 25th Conference of Parties (COP25) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change had been scheduled to take place December 2-13 in Santiago, Chile. This is the second time that the location for COP25 will have to be changed, after Brazil backed out in November 2018 due their new presidency adopting an anti-globalist agenda. Combined with President Trump’s announcement on November 4 to formally back out of the Paris Agreement, this cancellation of COP25 no doubt greatly undermines global climate justice efforts. The participants’ schedules are thrown into disarray. Following the example set by Greta Thunberg when she traveled to New York from Sweden on a carbon emission free boat, some groups had already departed from Europe via boats. They are now forced to turn back in the middle of the ocean since. Spain announced on October 31 that Madrid is willing to host the conference on the same dates. Participants from the Americas still have a month’s time if they wish to take the water route as well.
The Chile protest began in Santiago, the nation’s capital, on October 7, a day after legislation increased bus and subway fares by 30 pesos ($0.04 USD). What started off as simple fare evasions quickly escalated into widespread destruction of public property and demonstrations by millions of protesters. The public transportation system in Santiago was essentially shut down after organized groups of protesters attacked stations and buses on October 18. President Piñera declared the country to be in a state of emergency on the same day.
These protests reflect decades of growing discontent among Chile’s general population. After the socialist government of President Salvador Allende was overthrown by Augusto Pinochet in 1973, a dictatorship was put in place that promoted economic growth by privatizing public resources. The privatization of pension, healthcare, education, and water generated large profits due to the people’s dependency on them. Coupled with the country’s large mining industry, Chile’s economic growth took off and is now one of the wealthiest Latin America nations. This quick growth resulted, however, in a large economic disparity. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the top 1% of Chileans control 26.5% of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 50% of Chileans have only 2% of the wealth.
While the rich Chileans got richer, the standard of living for the rest of Chileans did not increase much; instead it put them deeply into debt. Pensions only cover roughly one-third of average monthly expenses . Some Chileans in their 40s and 50s are still paying off student loans. Water companies direct fewer resources to some poor areas due to low profit margins, leaving the people there without a guarantee to safe, clean water. The average income for a Chilean in 2018 was $796 while the median was only $538. Coupled with the many other necessities and utilities that the Chileans are forced to pay for, the otherwise unremarkable 30 peso fare-raise turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
President Piñera himself is a billionaire businessman with a net worth of around 2.8 billion dollars as estimated by Forbes. In the weeks since the protests began, he replaced ministers, called for social discourse to take place, promised to increase people’s pensions and taxes on the wealthy, while decreasing some public service and healthcare costs. Piñera’s promises rang empty in the ears of the protesters. Among their many demands, the resignation of President Piñera and the complete revision of the Chilean Constitution takes top priority. The Chilean Constitution was created during the dictatorship of Pinochet and remained unchanged even after Pinochet’s rule ended in 1990. According to the protesters, they are fighting for the future generation more than they are fighting for themselves; the problems that they face right now will simply repeat themselves if the root causes stay the same.
Despite the destruction of subway stations, the protests in Santiago had largely been peaceful. The Chilean government’s response, however, was anything but. After a state of emergency was declared, the military moved into the city and curfews were put into place. Those who attended public assemblies were then treated as criminals. Citing marginal cases of looting and burning, Chile’s police force made use of tear gas and rubber pellets to control the marches. They launched tear gas canisters indiscriminately and fired pellets closer than the intended range of use, causing serious injuries by hitting people in the head. According to staff at Santiago hospitals, there have been at least 177 cases of eye injuries and 26 cases of complete loss of vision in one eye. The Chile National Institute of Human Rights reported that at least 1,233 people have been injured during these protests, 37 of those with gunshot wounds, and at least 18 dead with 5 cases of direct homicide by the police or military. The institute is filing over 130 allegations of human rights violations, including 18 counts of sexual violence and 92 counts of torture, more than what they filed in the entire year of 2018. Investigators from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights arrived in Santiago on Monday, October 29 and are expected to examine the abuse against the peaceful demonstrators.
President Piñera blamed the protests as the reason for canceling COP25. This move would serve to sully the demonstrators' reputation, suggesting that the important climate conference would have proceeded smoothly if not for them. Of course, the protesters’ goal is not to prevent crucial international discussions from taking place. A feminist group in Chile released a response on October 31 stating that along with civil reforms, climate justice and the upholding of the Paris Agreement are also their objectives. The cancellation of COP25 also reflects President Piñera’s doubt that the protest will subside by December, meaning we can expect the movement to continue for some time.