Interview with the Chief of the Chilean Joint General Staff, General Hernán Mardones Ríos
By Dialogo November 14, 2011
Top-ranking defense officials from several South American countries met in Santiago, Chile, for the Third Annual South American Defense Chiefs Conference (SOUTHDEC), in September. Cosponsored by the Chilean Armed Forces and the U.S. Southern Command, the 2011 edition of the conference focused on military support for humanitarian assistance and disaster response. Diálogo’s interview with the head of the Chilean Joint General Staff, Lieutenant General Hernán Mardones Ríos, follows.
DIÁLOGO: General, who is responsible for organizing the receipt and distribution of all the humanitarian aid received by a country after a disaster?
General Hernán Mardones Ríos: I believe that in a country like Chile, the political authorities are responsible for that at their respective levels. At the national level, without a doubt, the president is ultimately responsible for emergency or disaster situations or natural disasters, but the Minister of Interior serves as the executive officer. At the municipal level, there are the mayors, who are not representatives of the president; they’re elected by the citizens, and as a consequence, they’re the most direct point of contact between citizens and the state’s administrative system. So the entire ladder of political authorities – including the President, Minister of Interior, intendants, and governors – are responsible for making the decisions in Chile.
DIÁLOGO: But what happens with the Armed Forces?
*General Mardones:*The Armed Forces are permanent institutions of the Republic. They exist for the defense of the fatherland and the preservation of its territorial integrity; consequently, their mission is a mission of preparedness in the face of an international crisis or an armed conflict. Nevertheless, the idea of using the Armed Forces in disaster situations is an idea based on capabilities; it’s not an idea about using military force in order to be able to act in the event of a disaster. The idea is to make use of and select from a menu of capabilities that the Armed Forces have in Chile in order to transfer that, to take what is needed in light of the characteristics of the situation underway in a specific place. Chile is a country that gets hit with everything in terms of natural disasters. As a consequence, it’s a country that has to be prepared for emergencies, disaster situations and natural disasters.
In extreme situations, the Government declares a State of Constitutional Emergency that allows the use of the Armed Forces. It’s on the basis of that state of emergency that the Armed Forces react, coordinated by the Joint General Staff.
DIÁLOGO: Did the 2010 earthquake change forever the way that the people see their Armed Forces?
General Mardones: Yes. It was an action that took place without filing a single piece of paper, without firing a single shot, and without a single death, and I believe that this ability of the Chilean Armed Forces to be able to deploy in that way is an ability for which we should also thank the participation of our forces in peace operations – the seven years that we’ve been in Haiti, in Cyprus, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Kosovo, in the Middle East – because those peace operations allow our professional enlisted personnel and officers to face situations of this kind. They’re training fields for our troops in that sense. Our soldiers go to these operations and begin to change the way in which they face that situation, which is no longer one of purely military training, but rather a way of relating to people who have been affected, people who are part of a disaster in which, besides military authority, it’s also necessary to be understanding, empathetic, have humanity, be caring and giving of humanitarian aid.
DIÁLOGO: General, there was a discussion at the conference of the possible creation of an organization, in a specific country, that would be responsible for the joint deployment of humanitarian aid by the nations of the region. Due to all this experience, due to the professionalism of the Chilean Armed Forces, do you see Chile as a natural leader to head that organization, in the event that it is created?
General Mardones: I believe that what we’re thinking about is of making our efforts and information converge in a system that can enable us to collaborate in the best way possible with the country affected, because reactions to an emergency or disaster situation or to natural disasters are different in each country, depending on its particular characteristics, depending on its laws, depending on its political leaders, and depending on the possibilities of support that they have and the relationship that they have with different countries around the world. As a consequence, you can’t restrict this action to a common procedure that’s applied indiscriminately in any country, because it’s structured here under the terms of the Inter-American Defense Board, UNASUR [Union of South American Nations], or any other organization that might be leading it. The intention is to offer the best information conditions at that exact moment, so that, as we explained at the meeting, we don’t get a truck full of tomato sauce and never get any spaghetti.
DIÁLOGO: And how do you see the U.S. participation in all this?
General Mardones: I believe that the United States, and the relationship that we [Chile] have with the U.S. Southern Command, is very strong; there’s no doubt that they have always been quick to collaborate at the most difficult moments that the countries of the Americas have suddenly had to experience. There’s no doubt that we’ve received aid at the right time, especially in communications and other critical elements. The United States was in Haiti for the earthquake; I remember the Vinson aircraft carrier, which I had the opportunity to visit, the other ships they also sent, and the [USNS] Comfort hospital ship. Consequently, the U.S. role in this is notable for always trying to be present at those difficult moments.
The commander of the Southern Command is trying to take these experiences that have occurred in different countries in the Americas and make the efforts converge into a system, a procedure, a way of acting that can serve to help us find that rationality at the time of the worst crises that nations can experience. Consequently, the U.S. role has to be recognized.