Only a few years ago, it would have been impossible to write about Chilean politics without emphasizing the role of the military, whose impunity was the single greatest menace to domestic tranquility. After Pinochet’s arrest in London, his prosecution in Santiago, public revelations of the dictatorship’s human rights abuses, imprisonment of individuals such as former intelligence officer Manuel Contreras, and evidence of Pinochet’s money laundering, the military leadership has kept its distance from the former regime. Many retired officers, though, remain unrepentant.
Under the constitution, the heads of the army, navy, air force, and Carabineros form a large part of the Consejo Nacional de Seguridad (Cosena, or National Security Council), but since the 2005 reforms, Cosena merely advises the president and the military has no voting role in the institution.
The army has 50,000 active members, almost half of them youthful conscripts; the remainder includes 4,500 officers and 16,000 noncommissioned officers. Military service is obligatory but not universal; President Michelle Bachelet has pledged to end the draft.
The navy contingent of 22,000 includes about 3,000 women; its hardware consists of 29 vessels, only six of which are combat ships, plus four Talcahuano-based submarines. The 12,800-strong air force (FACh) has bases at Iquique, Antofagasta, Santiago, Puerto Montt, and Punta Arenas, and on Antarctica’s King George Island. There are about 36,000 Carabineros (nationwide paramilitary police).
Educational changes in the military are tentatively encouraging. Since 2001, cadets at the army’s Escuela Militar (War College) have studied human rights and international humanitarian law. Cadets will also pursue civilian courses parallel to their military studies, graduating with a major in military science and a minor in humanities or science.
Chile devotes more of its GDP (about 3.5 percent) to military spending than any other Latin American country. On the continent, only Colombia and Ecuador approach that figure. Neighboring Argentina, by contrast, spends just 1.13 percent on its armed forces. Santiago has spent US$2.785 billion in upgrading armaments; the next greatest figure is Venezuela’s US$2.2 billion.
The law stipulates that military spending cannot fall below 1989 levels nor drop in real terms, and guarantees it 10 percent of profits from Codelco’s burgeoning state copper sales.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition