President Sebastián Piñera announced on Wednesday that Chile would no longer host next month’s summit of leaders from the Asia-Pacific region, throwing a wrench into plans by Donald Trump and Xi Jinping to sign a trade war truce at the gathering.
The Chilean president was forced to cancel the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, due to be held in mid-November, because of continuing protests against inequality in one of Latin America’s richest countries — the worst civil unrest in Chile since the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet that ended in 1990.
Chile has also pulled out of hosting a UN climate change conference, COP25, which was due to be held in December.
Mr Trump and Mr Xi had focused on the APEC summit in Santiago as the place where they could sign a ceasefire in their long-running trade war, with China agreeing to beef up its agricultural purchases in exchange for a reprieve from higher US tariffs. Officials from both countries were also negotiating limited agreements on intellectual property and currency as part of the package.
Mr Trump had this week expressed confidence that the APEC summit would go ahead. Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesperson, told reporters on Wednesday that the US administration was looking into the implications of the cancellation.
Although Mr Xi and Mr Trump were expected to finalise their deal in time for the meeting in Santiago, US and Chinese officials, who were still ironing out details of the accord, no longer face as firm a deadline to conclude the negotiations. It was unclear whether APEC would scramble to find an alternative venue and time for the summit, or whether Washington and Beijing would identify a new location for their two presidents to meet.
UN Climate Change said it was “exploring alternative hosting options” in light of Chile’s decision.
The sudden change of plans for the annual UN climate change summit, the central pillar of the Paris climate pact, could mean a delay in the event, which had been scheduled for December 2 — 13.
If no country agrees to host the climate talks, the location of the meeting will be shifted to Bonn, Germany, which is the headquarters of the UN Climate Change group. Chile’s cancellation could also put more focus on the UK, which is set to host the next round of climate talks in Glasgow in 2020.
Chilean officials had previously insisted there was “no chance” of calling off the summits. Earlier this month, APEC security teams were seen walking around the presidential palace doing advance surveillance, while Mr Piñera praised the virtues of Chilean stability in an interview with the Financial Times. In a separate interview, Mr Larraín assured the FT that the two summits would be Chile’s opportunity to showcase its achievements to the world.
But Mr Piñera was ultimately forced to pull out in order to concentrate on controlling the protests and finding solutions to citizen demands.
“We are very sorry and profoundly regret the problems and inconveniences that this decision means for both summits,” said Mr Piñera on Wednesday at a press briefing in La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago.
He added that the decision was necessary “given the difficult circumstances that our country has gone through and considering that our top concern and priority as a government is to concentrate absolutely on, first, fully re-establishing public order, citizen security and social peace; secondly to impose with all the force and urgency required the new social agenda to respond to the principal demands of our citizens; and third to encourage a wide and profound process of dialogue to listen to our compatriots.”
The cancellation will be a big blow to a country that has prided itself on its political stability and openness to global commerce over the past three decades.
“For years, #Chile has been an anchor of stability in Latin America from both an economic and political perspective, reducing poverty, tending to democratic institutions and economic growth. It’s also a true leader in global trade matters. This latest turn of events is stunning,” Eric Farnsworth, a former US trade official now at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas think-tank in Washington, wrote on Twitter.
The announcement comes after curfews and a state of emergency were lifted at the weekend. A cabinet reshuffle on Monday also saw the departure of some of Mr Piñera’s closest and most loyal collaborators, including finance minister Felipe Larraín and interior minister Andrés Chadwick, who is also his cousin.
Despite bringing younger and more moderate figures into his cabinet and reducing the military’s presence from the streets, the unrest has persisted. It has been 13 days since protests against a 3.7 per cent rise in metro fares first turned violent, exacerbated by what many criticised as a poor and insensitive initial response to the crisis. Mr Piñera’s approval ratings are now at an all-time low of 14 per cent.
So far at least 20 people have died amid protests, looting and arson. Demonstrators continuing to set buildings on fire and vandalise metro stations this week, and there were few signs that the demonstrations were dying down.
Chile has long been considered one of the most prosperous and stable economies in Latin America, after a sustained period of growth since the fall of Pinochet that saw poverty drop from 40 per cent to 10 per cent.