President Piñera Can Travel Despite Constitutional Accusation

SANTIAGO — As the COP25 picks up steam, many regret that it had to be moved from Santiago to Madrid because of Chile’s ongoing social crisis. President Sebastián Piñera also lamented that he was not attending, but said he felt it was his duty to be in Chile during this hard time. Some have said Piñera can’t leave because of the Constitutional Accusation hanging over his head; they are wrong.

On Dec. 2, the 2019 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP25) got underway. As explained on the COP25 website, “[t]he Conference of the Parties (COP) is the supreme decision-making body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,” and “the 197 Parties that make up the treaty – 196 nations plus the European Union – will seek to move towards the implementation of the agreements that have been reached under the Convention that lays down specific obligations for all Parties to fight climate change.”

A major event, and originally slated for Santiago, a few weeks ago it had to be moved across the Atlantic to Madrid because of Chile’s social crisis that erupted Oct. 18. In fact, so late in the game was the venue change that the COP25 “about us” page still reads as if the convention is happening in Chile.

The COP25 would have been a major feather in the cap for Chile, if not also for the country’s president, Sebastián Piñera. But such was not to be, and in the end the president isn’t even attending. Instead, his Minister of the Environment, Carolina Schmidt, is.

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Piñera: ‘It Is My Duty To Be In Chile’

On Dec. 2, Piñera sent a video message for the inauguration of the COP25. He thanked Spain for taking over and added, “It hurts not to be in Madrid today, but I feel that my duty is to be in Chile facing the hard time we have experienced.”

Some have asserted that the president can’t travel because of the pending Constitutional Accusation against him. Others suggest that he can travel, but only with the agreement of the Chamber of Deputies (la Cámara de Diputados). 

Both are incorrect it seems and stem from mistaken interpretations of the Constitution’s Article 52, which states that, with respect to a Chamber of Deputies accusation, “This accusation may be filed while the President is in office and in the 6 months following his expiration in office. During this last time he may not be absent from the Republic without agreement of the Chamber.”

As constitutional lawyer Patricio Zapata explained to Cooperativa, the phrase “during this last time” “obviously” refers to the period of 6 months after leaving the government. Thus, the Constitution only seeks that a former president “does not avoid his responsibility once he leaves office,” he told Cooperativa.

When in doubt about the wording, the lawyer added, one must look at the origins of the rule, which in this case are in the “Trial of Residence,” which during colonial times required the governor to remain in the territory after leaving power to allow time for constituents to file any charges or complaints they might have against him.

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