From protecting scarce natural resources to fighting organized crime and drug trafficking, Chile’s security priorities have changed dramatically over the past two decades — and Defense Minister Andres Allamand says the country’s military establishment is doing its best to adapt to these new threats.
“The traditional boundary between defense and security has disappeared,” Allamand told some 100 people attending a Mar. 6 seminar at Washington’s Inter-American Dialogue.
“We’re now living in an age where citizens are much more empowered, and social networks are huge. Last year, a demonstration of thousands of people [students in Santiago protesting the government’s proposed educational reforms] formed in just a couple of hours because of Twitter. That’s putting a lot of pressure on the political establishment.”
On one hand, he said, this is a positive development because it shows the strength of Chile’s democratic institutions. However, he said, the gap between rich and poor is widening across the region — even in Chile, one of the hemisphere’s most prosperous countries.
“Throughout Latin America, democracies are much more stable than ever before, but we still have poverty and inequality,” said Allamand, who was named defense minister in January 2011 by President Sebastian Pinera. “The speed and consistency with which we’ve been able to tackle poverty over the past 25 or 30 years is something to be proud of.”
Chile seeks bigger role in international affairs
Next month, Allamand’s U.S. counterpart, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, will travel to Santiago, Chile — marking Panetta’s first official visit to Latin America.
“We are committed to playing a role in international affairs,” Allamand said. “Chile is an open economy, we now export to more than 150 countries, and we’ve signed 58 trade agreements around the world. Our administration’s point of view is, if you want to benefit from globalization, you must assume some responsibility in security affairs.”
To that end, Allamand praised Cruz del Sur, a joint Argentine-Chilean peacekeeping force established in 2008 to resolve border disputes and other regional crises with United Nations backing. Chile already has 500 peacekeeping troops in Haiti as part of the UN’s Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), which is currently headed by Chile’s former foreign minister, Mariano Fernandez.
“Thirty years ago, Argentina and Chile were facing the possibility of a war — something that would have been absolutely disastrous,” said Allamand. “Today, we have close ties and in terms of defense, we are exporters of peace.”
The irony, he said, is that even though Latin American and Caribbean countries generally don’t fight wars against each other — and even though nuclear weapons are banned — it’s still a violent region, accounting for 19 of the 20 countries with the world’s highest homicide rates.
“That’s a matter of huge concern. The police are unable to effectively tackle criminal organizations, gangs and drug trafficking — even in a country as stable as Brazil, where you need to send the army into the favelas,” said Allamand. “Drug trafficking is a problem for Chile. We’re in a region where the world’s largest and third-largest producers of cocaine are our neighbors. New approaches are needed, because the consumption of drugs in Chile is going up, not down. Chile needs a new institutional framework in order to face these kinds of threats. The one we have now is not enough.”
Greater vigilance along borders with Bolivia, Peru
Chile’s so-called Northern Border Plan, launched last October, incorporates the use of drones to control its borders with Bolivia and Peru to prevent drug trafficking. The plan, incorporates the use of drones to control its borders with Bolivia and Peru to prevent drug trafficking. The plan envisions a $71 million investment between now and 2014 on technology and manpower to monitor routes, inspect cargo and sea and land ports, and gather intelligence.
“In this context, the so-called new threats — terrorism, drug trafficking, organized crime, civil unrest — seem to be growing, as well as threats to natural resources,” he said, noting that MarÌa Mejia, secretary-general of Unasur, recently said it was far more likely that future Latin American armies would exercise some sort of regional deterrence to protect natural resources than to fight each other.
Allamand said recent legal and constitutional changes enacted by Chile’s Congress make the Ministry of Defense much more powerful than before; a joint chiefs of staff position has also been created.
“We have well-recognized, professional armed forces, but each with very strong individual identities. So pushing forward this idea of the joint staff was a breakthrough,” he said, noting that Chile’s new joint chief of staff is the sole authority in charge of planning the use of armed forces, as well as training. “He’s also responsible for Chilean troops in international operations, and in the case of natural disasters or emergencies.”
Allamand: Abolish ‘unreasonable’ Copper Law
In January, the defense committee of Chile’s lower house of parliament approved a new financial model for the armed forces that abolishes the country’s so-called Copper Law, which obligates state-owned copper conglomerate Codelco to earmark 10 percent of its annual revenues to the military. If the bill is passed, said Allamand, “there will be a huge change” in the way Chile’s defense expenditures are financed.
“This fills a missing link in terms of our democratic development,” he said. “Since the 1950s, Chile has had a defense budget with two components: ordinary expenses approved each year by Congress, and on the side, a special budget equivalent to 10 percent of state-owned copper sales, just for the purchase of military equipment. On one hand, the system guarantees some sort of stable financing for defense and makes it predictable. But on the other hand, from a democratic legitimacy point of view, it’s very weak.”
Allamand explained that when world copper prices are high — as is the case now — then the amount of money available for defense way exceeds Chile’s needs. But when prices are low, “then it’s less than what we need. It seems unreasonable to link defense expenditures to the price of a commodity.”
Allamand said Chile’s military expenditures have averaged 1.4 percent of GDP over the last 10 to 15 years — a proportion unlikely to vary significantly in the short term, even if Pinera succeeds in having the Copper Law abolished.
“Some people are very reluctant to change this system,” he conceded, “but the system we are moving to is much more reasonable and transparent.”