October 24, 2019 / 11:29 PM / 23 days ago

Chile says 'no chance' of riots derailing APEC, U.N. climate meet in Santiago

By Natalia A. Ramos Miranda, Dave Sherwood and Aislinn Laing

Demonstrators seen amid smoke as they protest against Chile's state economic model in Santiago, Chile October 24, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile, grappling with violent protests that rocked the capital Santiago for days, will not let the riots derail plans to host two major global meetings in coming months, Foreign Minister Teodoro Ribera said on Thursday.

He said that there was “no chance” of calling off the Nov. 16-17 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit or the United Nations climate change conference COP25 in December.

Riots that started over a hike in public transport costs prompted days of arson attacks and looting that led to the arrest of more than 6,000 people and at least 16 dead in one of the region’s traditionally most stable and wealthy nations.

Vandals set fire to metro trains and stops, sowing $300 million in damage and hobbling public transportation. Chile’s military has since taken over security in Santiago, a city of 6 million now under a “state of emergency,” imposing curfews for five consecutive nights.

“I’m certain that under no circumstances will this come to impact the conferences,” Ribera told reporters.

Ribera said Chile’s foreign ministry had contacted each of the 20 participants in the Asia-Pacific gathering of nations, known by its initials APEC.

“They have expressed no doubt with respect to their attendance,” he said.

The protests over inequality made APEC and the promotion of free and inclusive trade “more relevant,” Ribera said.

“If we want a more inclusive country, APEC is part of the solution.”

U.S. President Donald Trump earlier in October said he would likely sign a trade deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the summit, though U.S. officials more recently said the pact could be delayed.

A diplomatic source in Santiago told Reuters the vice minister of trade had held a meeting with ambassadors from all the APEC nations to assure them that both conferences would proceed as planned.

“From what I’m hearing in the corridors there may be some changes afoot to the APEC leaders week to make it more austere and cost less,” the source said.

A month ago, Chilean President Sebastián Pinera was praised in domestic media for his work at the G7 summit in France for acting as a go-between in a diplomatic spat involving French President Emmanuel Macron and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro over the Amazon forest fires.

Today, walls and bridges around Santiago are scrawled with graffiti calling for Pinera’s resignation after he became the first Chilean leader to bring troops onto the streets since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-1990 dictatorship.

Jorge Heine, a former Chilean cabinet minister and ambassador to China, India and South Africa, said Pinera’s stature in both conferences would be “undoubtedly” diminished.

Chile’s strength had been its stable model of free trade around the Pacific, he said. “Now Chile is not quite such the ‘oasis in a troubled region’ that Pinera claimed it was just a few weeks ago.”

‘WORKING AGAINST THE CLOCK’

Chile took over the hosting of the COP25 conference in December after Brazil withdrew following the election of Bolsonaro, a climate skeptic.

In Cerrillos, at a former airforce base just southwest of central Santiago, workers continued to lay cement and pound nails at the conference site, unaffected by the nearby rioting.

Reuters spoke with several workers, neighbors, contractors and security guards at Cerrillos who said rioters had been thwarted by security forces amid the most heated weekend riots.

“I’d say 99% of construction workers have showed up to work,” said Daniel Cruz, a Peruvian worker. But snarled public transportation had forced some to finish early, slowing progress six weeks before the Dec. 3-13 conference. “We’re working against the clock.”

Claudio Moreno, of Chile’s Carabineros police force, said the Cerrillos metro stop, which is expected to see heavy use during the event, had been unscathed.

“No one got into the station, or into the COP installations,” Moreno told Reuters.

The metro line that reaches the COP25 site was heavily damaged elsewhere, raising questions about connecting to downtown hotels, where many attendees will likely stay.

A spokesman for the U.N. body mandated to organize the summit, the UNFCCC, said it had received “assurances” from the Chilean government. The governments of countries due to attend the two summits, including France, China, Brazil, Canada and Japan, told Reuters there would be no change to arrangements.

Major summits have previously been held in the wake of significant unrest - including the 2015 COP21 environmental summit in Paris. Weeks earlier 130 people were killed in a series of coordinated attacks claimed by Islamic State.

French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian dismissed a suggestion by far-left opposition lawmakers that the government suspend its participation in COP25 until the violence ends.

And Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing expected “Chile’s government will appropriately deal with the relevant problems” and ensure the APEC summit passes in “a safe and successful manner.”

Reporting by Natalia Ramos, Dave Sherwood, Aislinn Laing and Fabian Cambero; Additional reporting by Yoshifumi Takemoto in Tokyo, Valerie Volcovici in Washington, Jake Spring in Brasilia, Matthew Green in London, Huizhong Wu in Beijing, Kelsey Johnson in Toronto and John Irish in Paris; Editing by Grant McCool

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