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Interview with Gen. Juan Miguel Fuente-Alba – Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Army

By Dialogo
May 03, 2011

At 3:34:14 a.m. local time on Saturday, 27 February 2010, a little over a month
after a strong earthquake devastated Haiti, another quake, this one 8.8-magnitude,
struck Chile. The Chilean government called on the Armed Forces to provide vital relief
support, and this operation profoundly changed the relationship between the military and
the Chilean people. Army Gen. Juan Miguel Fuente-Alba Poblete, who has occupied the post
of commander-in-chief of the Chilean Army since a few days (10 March 2010) after the
earthquake, visited the U.S. Southern Command, where he granted Diálogo the following
Diálogo: Do you have a special, different project for the Chilean Army under your command?
General Fuente-Alba: In general, the Army’s projects take
quite a long time to be executed, and our plan to modernize and transform the force
practically began in 2001-2002, to have the Army profile that we have today. For
this reason, what’s being done today is the final part, the part in which
projects underway are implemented. Now, with the experience obtained as a
consequence of the 2010 earthquake in Chile, we’re going to develop a line of
units with a higher degree of flexibility, in order to be able to collaborate in
civil-protection plans like those in which the government is engaged.
In the short term, we’re going to develop an operational area that
we’re lacking in our armored brigades, and we’ll work on the general
conception of units of that kind, which is to have helicopters that accompany the
armored brigades. Those aircraft will have a simultaneous double purpose for
peacetime operations, that is, one fundamental task and one subsidiary task, to
phrase it somehow. At base, however, the Army today is following a set path. It has
to consolidate its definitive infrastructure. The Army changed its structure between
2002 and 2005; it changed from being a basically territorial army deployed
throughout the territory to an army better described as functional, with more
complete and more flexible structures. That demanded and still demands a different
kind of structures, infrastructure, installations, such as housing for officers and
career soldiers, their recreation facilities. All that is a work in progress.
Command of the Army is a four-year post, so you can’t assume that in these
four years, this is going to be done, and then in the next four years, something
else is going to be done. These are works in progress, in which the authority in
command of the Army takes on those same projects and continues implementing them.
Diálogo: General, could you speak a bit about the lessons
learned from the earthquake in Chile and about the international aid that Chile
provides to other countries?
General Fuente-Alba: After the earthquake on 27 February 2010, I
would say – and I’m referring exclusively to the Army – that there
were three periods that characterized the use of the military for aid and
collaboration in the situation resulting from the earthquake. At first, it was
basically humanitarian, an immediate, localized collaboration involving the various
garrisons or military installations in the affected area. That lasted approximately
forty-eight hours. After the first forty-eight hours, a constitutional state of
emergency restricting individual liberties was declared, in this case what is called
a “disaster” state of emergency, giving the military a set of
authorities and powers enabling it to act with greater legitimacy and legal backing.
That constitutional state of emergency lasted thirty days, during which the
military was in command of the jurisdictional area within which it was given
authority to act. In that period, the Army basically had to use its resources to be
able to provide order and security in the different areas where the earthquake
struck, because the population’s behavior was between nervousness and, in a
certain way, disturbance in matters relating to security at different commercial
installations, fuel sales, etc. For that reason, it was necessary for our forces to
deploy and approach the situation in a specific way. In that regard, you have to
understand that given Chile’s political history, the fact of sending the
military into the streets, in a difficult situation like the one that some regions
were going through – vandalism, theft, looting of supermarkets, etc. –
and using the military to prevent that, we had to be very careful how we went about
it so as not to have to lament someone’s death as a result of providing the
security that was needed. As a consequence, it was necessary to issue very explicit
regulations on this subject, very clearly specifying the rules of engagement for our
forces, to prevent excesses in that regard.
Merely as a side note,
within forty-eight hours the Army needed to move around sixteen thousand men to the
affected area, and in the case of a disaster like this one, moving and posting sixteen
thousand Army personnel to an area and not causing additional problems in that area, in
terms of logistical supply – I’m referring to fuel, water, food, all the
relevant sanitation matters, etc. – meant equipping those sixteen thousand people
with all the logistics to enable them to support themselves for a period that might last
a month or two.
Diálogo: Was the second period to which you are
referring the one decreed by the president of the Republic at that time, Michelle
Bachelet, through a constitutional state of emergency?
General Fuente-Alba: Yes. Afterward, once the constitutional
state of emergency had ended, came the period of humanitarian aid strictly speaking
and being able to collaborate in rebuilding the most affected areas. That was the
last of the three periods, which was going to last four months, but actually lasted
around six months. In this period, the Army found itself obliged to take on two
large tasks: continuing military training in the units that were not going to be
used in this process, and on the other hand, building a structure to function and
carry out our work during the length of time that the rebuilding and humanitarian
aid lasted. I’m focusing on the latter, since we’re talking about the
earthquake; I’m not talking about those who continued carrying out their
normal military activity and continued normally with the projects underway.
I’m referring solely to the emergency.
For that purpose, it was necessary to stop – I would say – the
military activity of two divisions, the divisions located in the center of the
country, and shape a force capable of reaching the different communes and places
most affected by the earthquake, a total of 117 communes, which are territorial
jurisdictions administered by a mayor, to use a more international terminology. That
meant maintaining an average of around ten thousand men in the disaster area,
focused on health care, repairing roads, demolishing buildings, constructing
emergency housing, etc. Independently of those ten thousand people, who were Army
personnel, a program was implemented with the administration, with the Labor
Ministry, in which an organization that is part of the Chilean Army, the Military
Work Corps, which basically carries out road engineering projects and is governed by
a special law, could contract individuals to collaborate in clearing roadways, in
clearing rainwater drainage systems, etc.
Diálogo: In a certain way, did this end up being a good
experience for the Chilean Army?
General Fuente-Alba: In several senses. First, the realization that the
Army as a structure, as a military organization, is capable of doubling its capacity
with a degree of flexibility and dedicating itself to two completely different tasks.
Rapidly organizing structures capable of managing an activity different from its usual
one, without prejudice to its usual activity. That’s something very important. The
second is that – I don’t want this to sound arrogant – this situation,
as painful as it was, generated a very interesting opportunity for the Army from a
sociological perspective. The individuals who make up the Army reacquired very close
ties with the population. For every one of those people, there was someone from the Army
who came to be with them, to solve their problem of the moment, to have a squad of
people who built their emergency housing, to collaborate with the health sector, set up
hospitals that provided care for the sick and the elderly. This degree of closeness
enabled us to make a leap forward in recovering a very important dialogue of harmony
with the people.
Probably, that would have come with time, but this painful
situation accelerated it. That was a tremendous experience for our people. I visited
the affected areas, inspecting the work that people were doing, and one of the
things that struck me was hearing from young officers, a captain, a major, a
lieutenant, that one of the most marvelous things that had happened to them in their
lives since joining the Army was how the people were thankful and grateful for the
support the Army was providing in those localities, without it being a strictly
military activity. The other thing that was an experience for us was being able to
rely on a force of engineers located in the areas with the highest population
density in case of a disaster, a capacity that we lost in abandoning our territorial
presence and becoming an organized and deployed force. We should have a force with
the capacity to split itself and be able to rapidly reach any area where aid and
humanitarian support are needed in favor of the civilian population. The other
interesting thing was that in one of the regions of the country, another disaster
took place, a very intense major snowstorm that lasted three days without stopping
– in southern Chile – in which roofs caved in, etc., a series of
problems due to the intense cold.
A significant part of the resources of our forces in that area had gone to
collaborate in the response to the earthquake situation in the center of the
country, and it was necessary to send them back in order to be able to collaborate
in the response to this other disaster. Our experience, as a consequence, is that
it’s necessary to have degrees of flexibility in different locations in the
country where disasters commonly occur, such as flooding from rivers or lakes,
volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, seaquakes, winter at high elevations with large
avalanches, landslides in the mountains, etc.