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Chapter 5. National Security


A series of masculine textile figures on a seventeenth-century Mapuche woman's belt called ñimintrarüwe

GEOGRAFICALLY ISOLATED but not immune from occasional foreign threats over the centuries, Chileans have developed some of the strongest military and naval traditions in Latin America. The indigenous inhabitants of Chile established a formidable reputation as warriors, in no small part by warding off Incan attempts at conquest in 1460 and 1491. Even the Spanish conquerors of the sixteenth century failed to establish their dominion south of the Río Bío-Bío, which remained, in effect, the southern frontier of Chile until more than three centuries later.

Following its declaration of independence in 1810, Chile became the first Latin American country to organize its armed forces on a professional basis. Its army and navy quickly earned a reputation for effectiveness, engaging in successful wars against the PeruBolivia Confederation of 1836-39, against Spain in 1865-66, and again against Peru and Bolivia in 1879-83.

Chile's long coastline (6,435 kilometers) and elongated shape create major defense problems, but geographical barriers such as the Andes, the Atacama Desert, the Strait of Magellan, and the Beagle Channel have long helped discourage any thoughts of military aggression by neighboring Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru. The Chilean Army has not engaged in a foreign war since 1883. Beginning with the inauguration in 1886 of a staff school, the War Academy (Academia de Guerra), under the direction of a captain in the German army, German influence became predominant in the army, which achieved such prestige throughout Latin America that many of the other states of the region sent selected officers for postgraduate training in Chilean military schools. Several countries contracted with full-scale Chilean military and naval missions to train their armed forces, and Chilean officers taught in the military schools of several other Latin American countries.

Persistent friction with Peru since the War of the Pacific (1879-83) has been fueled by Peruvian irredentism in regard to the territories ceded to Chile following that conflict, despite the ratification in 1929 of the Treaty of Ancón (also known as the Treaty of Tacna-Arica), recognizing their loss. Bolivia also has aspired to regain its outlet to the sea through the former coastal province of Antofagasta, lost as a result of that war, but has been too weak to pursue this objective alone. In early 1994, the possibility of any escalation of tension seemed slight in the medium term.

A continuing frontier dispute with Argentina almost led to war at the turn of the twentieth century and again in 1978. Tension with Argentina led Chile to break ranks with the rest of Latin America and quietly support Britain in the 1982 Malvinas/ Falklands War between Britain and Argentina, although Chile has supported Argentina's claim to the islands. The risk of outright hostilities between Chile and Argentina was removed by the Beagle Channel Treaty of May 1985, an increase in diplomatic contacts, and economic agreements since Patricio Aylwin Azócar (1990-94) took office as president. Brazil, Ecuador, and to a lesser extent Colombia have historically been Chile's natural allies, given shared disputes with Argentina and Peru. In the early 1990s, however, relations between Chile and its immediate neighbors have been generally normal. Chile has carried out joint naval exercises with both Argentina and Peru. Nevertheless, border tensions have surfaced occasionally, particularly with Peru, and the armed forces of Argentina and Chile have remained resistant to cooperation.

Despite a record of subordination to constitutional government that was almost unique in Latin America, the Chilean Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas de Chile) incurred international opprobrium in September 1973 when they violently overthrew the democratically elected government of Marxist president Salvador Allende Gossens (1970-73). The military regime, led by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte (1973-90), rebuilt the country's shattered economy, but it was responsible for extensive human rights abuses. The Pinochet regime adopted a new constitution in 1980 that called for a plebiscite to renew the presidential mandate for another eight years. The candidate was Pinochet himself, having been chosen by the military junta. Bowing to domestic and international pressures, the plebiscite was held under conditions that permitted a proper test of the nation's majority will. Pinochet lost, and free presidential elections were held in December 1989 in accordance with constitutional provisions. Pinochet honored the results of the 1989 presidential elections by handing over the reins of government to a civilian coalition led by President Aylwin in March 1990. However, Pinochet was entitled by the 1980 constitution to remain as head of the army for an additional eight years, until 1998, with no possibility of removal by the president.

In 1993 the combined strength of the armed forces was at least 91,800 (including 54,000 members of the army, 25,000 members of the navy, and 12,800 members of the air force). In addition, the army reserves had about 50,000 members.

Data as of March 1994

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Chile Table of Contents