The Peru – Chile Arms Race: Current Ramifications of a Bitter History

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  • One of the world’s ugliest military establishments – Chile’s – is rewarded with every sort of military hardware.
  • In the latest development involving a series of ongoing tensions between Peru and Chile, the Chilean flag was thrown to the ground by Peru’s newly chosen defense minister Marciano Rengifo, on August 25, an action that was widely reported by the Chilean media.
  • Just about any type of reminder is enough to trigger tensions between the two countries, that already fought a never-to-be forgotten or forgiven war in the 19th century.
  • This latest event comes at the heels of what the Peruvian and Bolivian media see as a unilateral arms race ignited by an arrogant Chile.
  • While the most of Latin America continues to focus on a potentially explosive dispute between Washington and Venezuela, the nations of Peru, Bolivia and Chile continue to be riveted on the consequences of the 19th century’s War of the Pacific.
  • This COHA report includes exclusive comments by Peru’s former Minister of Interior Fernando Rospigliosi and a Peruvian intelligence official.
  • On August 25, a shocked Peruvian Congress watched Congressman Ronnie Jurado Adriazola from Tacna – widely known as Peru’s most nationalistic region – place a Chilean flag on the table of recently appointed Prime Minister Pedro Pablo Kuczynski Godard while he accused him of being “pro-Chilean.” The degree of shock in the Peruvian legislative chamber reached new heights when the recently appointed Minister of Defense, Division General (ret.) Marciano Rengifo Ruiz, promptly grabbed the flag from the table and threw it on the ground. This event was reported in the Peruvian, Bolivian and Chilean media, with Chilean foreign affairs minister Ignacio Walker being quick to declare in a written statement that his government considered this event as an insulting act. Meanwhile Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo called his Chilean counterpart, Ricardo Lagos, on the telephone and apologized for what had happened. This event came at a moment when relations between both countries are particularly tense due to Chile’s apparent decision to engage in a unilateral arms race of almost unprecedented proportions.

    A Hatred That Will Not Die
    The most dire effect of the 19th century War of the Pacific and the draconian price the victor, Chile, exacted from the two vanquished nations, has guaranteed the perpetuation of hatred and unstable relations among the three affected nations ever since. Bolivia lost its sea access and the port of Antofagasta and has been demanding ever since that Chile return these territories. It is no accident that La Paz has not had normal diplomatic relations with Santiago since 1978. Even though it did not make economic sense, last year Bolivia decided to export its huge natural gas reserves to the North American market (the U.S. and Mexico) via a Peruvian rather than a Chilean route. The main reason for this decision being the intensity that most Bolivian nationals felt towards Chile, in polls citizens declared that they did not want to see their natural gas be exported to a Chilean port.

    Regarding overall relations between Peru and Chile, it is sufficient to say that except for brief interludes they have always been tense. In 1975, Peruvian president General Juan Velasco Alvarado was on the verge of declaring war on Chile in order to regain the two lost Peruvian territories – Arica and Tarapaca- that were lost in the War of the Pacific. As recently as 2004, Lima accused Santiago of having sent weapons to Ecuador during the 1995 armed border dispute between Peru and Ecuador. Tensions ran particularly high then as Chile is one of the four nations (the others being Argentina, Brazil and the U.S) responsible for guaranteeing the peace between Peru and Ecuador, according to the 1941 peace agreement that ended a conflict that had raged between the two nations at that time. Most recently, Peru and Chile have been stuck in a diplomatic battle regarding the maritime border between both nations.

    Even events that are not directly linked to hostile actions by each nation’s government tend to raise the always present dislike between the two countries. On January 4, a couple of Chilean tourists, Enso Tamburrino Saldías and Paolo Kadima Calvo, were detained by the Peruvian police in the historical city of Cuzco after being accused of spraying graffiti on some Inca ruins. The incident generated national outrage, not so much because of the defacement of Peruvian Inca ruins, but because it had been Chileans who had authored it. Another incident occurred on August 17 after a heated soccer match between the national teams of both countries in the Peruvian city of Tacna, which Peru eventually won 3-1. Chilean citizens who went to the match reported that when they crossed the border in their cars on their return trip from Tacna to Arica, the Peruvian border police made fun of them for the soccer victory earlier in the evening.

    Events in the Peruvian Congress
    In spite of this series of acerbic events that continually raise tensions between the two countries, no one could have anticipated what happened in the Peruvian Congress. Newly appointed PM Kuczynski was sitting next to the just appointed cabinet upon his being selected for his post when Ronnie Jurado, the congressman from Tacna, went up to Kuczynski’s seat and accused him of being pro Chilean. Upon doing this, Jurado whipped out a Chilean flag and dropped it on the prime minister’s desk. The flag sat there for a few seconds before it was thrown to the ground by recently-appointed defense minister Rengifo, and then it was whisked away from there by another congressman. The incident was widely reported by the media in both countries, with Chilean Foreign Affairs Minister Ignacio Walker declaring that this would hurt relations between the two nations. Meanwhile, Jurado declared that he had no reason to apologize to the new prime minister. He did this because Kuczynski, when he was minister of economy and finance, tried to sell Peruvian gas to Chile even though Peru does not have a secure program to guarantee that the domestic market is fully supplied. In a statement to the Peruvian station CPN Radio on August 26, he also accused Kuczynski of attempting to sell the Peruvian port in El Callao to several Chilean enterprises.

    Curiously enough, the entire opera bouffe event might have earned Rengifo some points, while further alienating Toledo from the armed forces. In an off-the-record interview with COHA, several high ranking Peruvian army officers declared their happiness at seeing the Chilean flag on the floor of Congress. One officer explained that at the battle of Tarapacá on November 27, 1879, during the War of the Pacific, a Peruvian soldier named Mariano Santos captured the Chilean flag and took it home as a war trophy – this was the last time that a Chilean flag had been thrown to the ground until Rengifo’s bold action. While Peruvian military officers would never publicly express their brimming satisfaction about seeing the Chilean flag being disgraced, it is quite obvious that more than one glass of beer was raised to toast Rengifo’s actions by the behind closed doors of Peruvian barracks. Whatever else Rengifo might do during his time as defense minister, he has already has won the plaudits of the bulk of the country’s military officers by his act.

    A Very One-Sided Arms Race As Seen From Peru
    For the past years, Chile has been embarking on what Peru’s media has come to declare as a unilateral arms race that could destabilize the region. While Santiago continually declares that this process is simply an upgrade of obsolete weaponry in its armed forces’ inventory, Lima seems to think otherwise. Indeed, Chile appears to have gone well beyond a simple upgrade of its weaponry. On September 12, the Peruvian newspaper Correo published an article that explained in detail the military equipment Chile has purchased abroad in recent years. It has bought ten F-16 fighter planes from Lockheed Martin, a deal in large part brokered by then Lockheed lobbyist Otto Reich, who was so ill-thought of in Congress that the hard right ideologue could not get Senate confirmation to be Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs in the Bush administration. Chile also purchased two Scorpene-type submarines from Spain (for $500 million) In addition, Chile has bought four frigates type M from Holland, at a cost of $300 million, as well as four frigates type 22 and 23 from England (for $400 million). Perhaps more worrisome is Chile’s acquisition of 100 Leopard II tanks, made in Holland, in addition to the 300 Leopard I tanks they already possess which have night vision and are equipped with mounted British 105mm cannons.

    Last December, CEPAL, the International Monetary Fund and the IISS of London issued a joint report that found that Chile leads the per capita defense expenditures in all of Latin America, at $90.08 per inhabitant. The 2004-2005 Military Balance of the IISS London found that in 2001, 2002 and 2003, Chile had the highest defense expenditure budget per capita of any nation in South America.

    Part of the reason why the Chilean military appears to always get what it wants is that it has a relatively very large budget, which it obtains partly because of Chile’s copper exports (the armed forces is mandated to receive 10% of the total of all copper exports, a provision in effect since the late 1950’s and which remained so during the Eduardo Frei Sr. and Salvador Allende administrations until the present time). However, the autonomy of Chile’s military should not be overestimated. In an exclusive interview with COHA, former Peruvian minister of the interior, Fernando Rospigliosi explained that the Chilean armed forces continue to have more power and autonomy than any other military in Latin America. However, there are many events that have occurred that indicate that the country’s military slowly has lost a good deal of influence in recent years. The fact that a woman, who had been divorced, and whose father had been a torture victim during the Pinochet dictatorship, was chosen as minister of defense, would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago. Rospigliosi went on to explain that Pinochet’s deteriorating mentality and that he has been proven to have engaged in corruptive practices as a result of recent revelations involving his Riggs Bank account, have gone a long way in erasing the Pinochet legacy in the armed forces.

    Yet the hard fact is that the Chilean military, with one of the most brutal institutional histories in all of Latin America which tortured and murdered thousands of innocent Chilean civilians under Pinochet, is being rewarded with a cornucopia of weaponry, while millions of its citizens live below the poverty line, is almost unfathomable. Equally difficult to comprehend is how a self-professed Socialist president could have dispatched troops to Haiti to help bring democracy to that country is almost a bad joke. Yet a long line of Christian-Democratic and Socialist presidents felt it necessary to bow and scrape for several decades, only to stiffen their stand after dementia ostensibly had set into the now disgraced old dictator has scraped some of the varnish away of how the Chilean political classes see themselves.

    In spite of its wretched military history, Chilean military life continues to be a very attractive for many of the country’s youth. Both Rospigliosi and a high ranking Peruvian intelligence officer also interviewed by COHA explained that Santiago has the capacity to have a well trained army (unlike Peru), and has the backing of Chilean society, in terms of resources and determination. Both of them noted that the coming months will be critical in estimating how much prestige the Chilean military as an institution will have lost as a result of the tragic incompetence of its military officers responsible for the accidental deaths several months ago of a number of recruits as the result of bad planning in front of horrific winter weather which could have been anticipated.

    The Peruvian Military Today
    On the other hand, the Peruvian military has suffered greatly after the decade-long Alberto Fujimori regime ended with its absconding with much of that nation’s military funds. In the past years, the major accomplishments of the Peruvian government towards national defense have been the purchase of two Lupo type frigates from Italy and the signing of a deal with the Russian Federation to repair most of Peru’s Soviet and Russian air fleet, including its MI-8 helicopters (Peru possesses only eight such helicopters after one crashed in the Peruvian Amazon in July, killing a brigadier general).

    The Peruvian army is presently undergoing a re-organization phase as it is still plagued by hold-over corrupt officials who served the Alberto Fujimori dictatorship. At the same time, the strung out armed forces are continuing their battle against a reinvigorated terrorist movement Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) that is once again spreading through the Amazon jungle, after many anti-subversive military bases had been judged as superfluous and closed in the past few years.

    It would appear that Chile’s military has decided to upgrade its equipment to become the new regional power of South America, with the Lagos government accommodating its tough military by buying it off, minimizing the significance of the dangers and harmful repercussions of its purchasing of state-of-the-art military technology and simply going along with whatever Chile’s high command puts on its wish list. Peru’s concerns over Chile’s arms procurement do not seem unfounded. Chilean war games carried out in the Iquique on August 4 were particularly portentous as the operation entailed Chilean air, ground and naval forces battling a fictive coalition of two nations, one who wanted sea access and the other that supported it, pointedly rekindling memories of the War of the Pacific.

    The Peruvian intelligence officer interviewed by COHA also explained that the Leopard tanks that Chile purchased cannot be used in the Andes due to their size and difficulty of maneuverability in mountainous terrain (which would rule out using them against either Argentina or Bolivia). This means that they can only effectively be used in largely flat areas like the Arica desert that borders Chile and Peru. On the other hand, some Peruvian government officials do not see Chile’s actions as being aggressive as they may appear. In an exclusive interview with COHA, former Peruvian Minister of the Interior Fernando Rospigliosi explained how Peru also has gone through major unilateral arms races that ended up going nowhere. Rospigliosi explained that in the 1970’s the Velazco government spent a huge amount of money purchasing Soviet military equipment, particularly the T-55 tanks, while in the 1980s Peru bought Mirage warplanes, the most advanced in Latin America at the time, as well as re-fitting the Grau, the flagship of Peru’s fleet, with none of these events leading to even a semblance of armed conflict between the two ancient rivals. Hence, from that point of view, Rospigliosi says that Lima cannot readily complain of Santiago’s rearmament plans since it has done the same in recent history. Rospigliosi went on to explain that Peru’s austere military budget would best be used to improve the lamentable living conditions of Peru’s military, in order to make it a more attractive career for youth. The other objective would be to renovate the military equipment, while getting rid of what is not needed. Rospigliosi saw the purchase of the Lupo frigates, without at the same time buying the weapons needed to compliment them, as a major flaw which implies higher maintance costs.

    Tensions and differences between Peru and Chile have become almost a part of daily life. The War of the Pacific, where Chile – as a veritable South American Sparta – achieved a massive land grab of Bolivian and Peruvian territory left a bitter inheritance. The war has largely shaped the national identities of citizens of three adjoining nations (including Bolivia). While it is unlikely that a conventional conflict will occur between the two nations anytime soon, the perception that the other nation is a security threat, not to say “the enemy,” may be enough to destabilize the region. Peruvian President Toledo, for example, has lost almost all of the meager respect which he has been accorded by the military, by apologizing to Lagos for Rengifo’s actions. On the other hand, the increasing control over the armed forces that the Chilean civilian government had lost by 1973, according to Rospigliosi, will greatly help in improving relations between both countries and diminishing the prospect of an armed conflict between them.

    To understand relations between Peru and Chile it is necessary to possess not only accurate facts, but also to understand the manner in which each nation perceives the other’s intentions. In order to achieve not only lasting peace but also a lasting sense of security between Peru and Chile, it will be necessary for Peru to spend the huge amount of defense dollars on a campaign to match Santiago – defense dollar for defense dollar. Only this will achieve a level where both nations have an equal amount of military capacity that dissuade the other from harboring any ill-intention for aggression against the other. A vital factor will be, as Rospigliosi explains it, that Peru’s civilian and military leaders must follow a rational plan that is made for the long term, not by giving into pressure from lobby groups. At the same time, Chile would be unwise to lift its security forces to a level where they are an obvious security threat to neighboring nations. The elections that will take place in Chile in December and in Peru next year could bring new governments that will hopefully usher in more constructive policies, although this is to be doubted, given the maturity of their odium for each other.