Today, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera begins a week-long trip through through the hemisphere, making his first official visit to the United States since he took office in 2010. He will also travel to Canada, El Salvador and Panama.
Piñera’s visit comes as the Obama administration has displayed a more visible interest in boosting ties with Latin America. President Obama traveled to Mexico and Costa Rica in May and Vice President Joe Biden is currently in Brazil—the last leg of a trip that took him to Colombia and Trinidad and Tobago.
Piñera will kick off his trip in Ottawa, Canada where he will meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and attend a day-long conference on technology and learning before heading to the United States on Saturday.
In the U.S., Piñera will meet with members of the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees, Secretary of State John Kerry and other world leaders, including International Monetary Fund (IMF) Director Christine Lagarde and World Bank Director Jim Yong Kim.
Piñera will close his U.S. visit by meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House on Tuesday. The presidents will discuss their bilateral agendas and broach the possibility of relaxing or eliminating U.S. visa requirements for Chilean citizens. The presidents also plan to discuss the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—a trade alliance between 11 Pacific Rim countries, including the U.S. and Chile.
After the U.S., Piñera will travel to El Salvador to meet with President Mauricio Funes and to Panama, where he will tour the renovations of the Panama Canal.
Chilean President Sebastián Piñera’s approval rating rose to 33 percent in May, according to a poll released on Monday by Santiago-based pollster Adimark Gfk. The boost is due to the Central Bank’s mid-May report that the Chilean economy grew 5.6 percent in the first quarter of 2012. Adimark reported that lower fuel prices and Piñera’s mea culpa on how the government dealt with social unrest in Aysén and Freirina during a speech last month were also factors.
Monday’s result was welcome news for the center-right president one month after his approval numbers dipped to all-time low of 26 percent in April—the lowest for a sitting president since the end of General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1990. But the boost may be short-lived. Despite solid economic growth, Chileans are wary of the widening income gap and many do not feel like they have benefited from the copper-fueled boom, according to the poll.
It is not clear whether low approval of the president will affect his coalition. Several of Piñera’s key ministers remain popular, including Public Works Minister Laurence Golborne, Defense Minister Andrés Allamand and Economy and Tourism Minister Pablo Longueira. Given Chile’s electoral law prohibiting immediate reelection, these ministers are favored to represent the Right in the 2013-2014 presidential election. "They have good chances in 2013” against the likely center-left opponent, Former President Michelle Bachelet, according to Patricio Navia, professor at the Universidad Diego Portales and New York University.
Chilean President Sebastian Piñera sent a bill to congress on Tuesday to reform Chile’s penal code and allow harsher sentences for certain forms of popular protest. According to the proposed legislation, protestors could receive prison sentences of up to three years for offenses such as occupying educational, religious or office buildings, impeding foot or vehicular traffic, and interrupting the delivery of public services.
The bill is a response to more than five months of student-led demonstrations to oppose greater privatization of secondary- and post-secondary schools—a process that began during the 17-year rule of former President Augusto Pinochet. Since May, protesters have occupied more than 200 educational institutions and drawn considerable international media attention. The ongoing demonstrations have also affected Piñera’s approval ratings, which dropped to 30 percent in September, down from 63 percent following the rescue of 33 miners one year ago, according to Santiago-based research group Adimark Gfk.
The bill has already drawn criticism from the opposition Concertación coalition as well as human rights groups. In a letter to the president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Associación Chilena de Organinismos No Gubernamentales (Chilean Association of Nongovernmental organizations-ACCIÓN) said the new penalties “violate the principles of rule of law that should govern in a democratic system.”
Union workers at Chile’s Escondida copper mine broke off labor negotiations on Tuesday over unmet contract terms, and are threatening to extend their five-day strike indefinitely. The 2,300 striking miners from the Escondida—the world’s largest copper mine—will be joined by 7,000 contractors today, according to union leader Marcelo Tapia. Workers from Chile’s state-owned Codelco mining company may join the strike on Thursday, though the intervention of President Sebastián Piñera has made it unlikely.
The strike at Escondida that began last Thursday was spurred by disagreement over monthly production bonuses. The mine is willing to pay workers a total of $6,000 in bonuses by the end of the year, but the worker’s union rejected the offer, demanding $10,800 per worker instead. Other union demands include protections for workers who contract serious illnesses on the job, punch clocks that better control their 12-hour work days, and removal of company surveillance camera which, the union claims, violates worker privacy.
Escondida has deemed the strike illegal and has refused to continue talks. Australian mining company BHP Billiton Ltd, which holds a 57 percent share of the mine, has refused the same government mediation that appears to have eased tensions at Codelco.
Union demands are buoyed by the near all-time high price of copper, currently at $4.40 per pound, that is generating record profits for shareholders like BHP, Rio Tinto PLC and Mitsubishi Corporation. The mine, located in the northern region of Antofagasta, produces about 3,000 tons of copper per day, or 7 percent of the world’s copper, worth about $30 million.
A group of Chilean opposition senators headed by former secretary of state Andrés Zaldivar announced yesterday that they intend to launch an investigation into possible tax misconduct by newly elected President Piñera during his recent sale of LAN airlines. Critics allege that President Piñera avoided paying around $50 million in taxes by finding a buyer for his holding company Axxion (the owner of LAN) rather than selling his shares directly.
Those backing the investigation also question the impartiality of Julio Pereira, head of Chile’s national tax collection agency on the grounds that he was recently appointed by the same person he must now investigate.
These new allegations, coupled with other recent setbacks in appointing his cabinet members indicate that President Piñera post-election honeymoon may be exceptionally short-lived.
March 31: Join a live online discussion with one of Brazil’s leading civic experts, AQ author Paulo Rogério, and technology experts including Editor-in-Chief of Wired.com Evan Hansen on how to extend digital inclusion to minorities across the hemisphere. Find out more.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.