From the September 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No. 9).

CHILE: Military Politics

Robert Taylor, World Press Review Contributing Editor

President Ricardo Lagos announces the appointment of Adm. Miguel Angel Vergara as commanding admiral following Adm. Jorge Arancibia's abrubt resignation (Photo: AFP).
President Ricardo Lagos’ stymied quest for a historic constitutional reform to redefine the thorny relationship of the Chilean military command with the nation’s civilian government paradoxically stands to benefit from the political ambitions of a former navy commander-in-chief and from the apparent endgame in legal proceedings against former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

On June 18, Adm. Jorge Arancibia abruptly resigned his naval command to pursue nomination by the conservative opposition party Independent Democratic Union (UDI) for a Senate seat in October. The political intrigue surrounding Arancibia’s run for office “has made plain the anomalies and defects of the (Pinochet-era) constitution of 1980 in its rules with respect to the armed forces,” Defense Minister Mario Fernández told correspondent Raquel Correa in an interview in Santiago’s conservative El Mercurio (June 24). “In that sense, it has helped to sharpen the focus of Senate debate on constitutional reform.”

The leftist magazine Punto Final of Santiago (June 1) observed that Arancibia’s transformation from naval commander to candidate “must be examined in the context of a country that has not finished reclaiming the democracy lost in 1973....Whether they are silent or they speak—but especially when they speak— the armed forces perform a decisive role. They fulfill it in an autonomous manner, and regularly to the detriment of a still-weak civilian government.”

The UDI’s reported overture offering Arancibia the nomination for the Senate seat from the coastal city of Valparaíso, where naval and military households are heavily represented, would place the admiral in a head-to-head contest with Sebastián Piñera. He is the newly elected president of Chile’s other major opposition party and a potential future rival to Santiago mayor and former UDI presidential nominee Joaquín Lavín.

The bitter confrontation looks certain to reopen divisions within the ranks of the conservative opposition—which has failed to negotiate a common national slate for the October parliamentary elections. It also undermines the UDI’s progress during the Lavín presidential campaign in distancing itself from past links to the Chilean military and the Pinochet regime, Punto Final argued.

Fernández told El Mercurio that the government’s agenda for constitutional reform would include a prohibition barring active armed forces commanders from running for elective office within a specified period following resignation of their command. It also would eliminate extraordinary institutional protections afforded the military in the 1980 constitution.

On July 9, Santiago’s Court of Appeals blocked prosecution of Pinochet on charges brought in the “Caravan of Death” case, based on medical findings that the 85-year-old former president suffered from “irreversible and progressive vascular dementia.” Human-rights activists and relatives of those who disappeared under the Pinochet regime during the 1970s and ’80s expressed anger and disappointment at the ruling.

But the court’s decision was viewed pragmatically by high-level sources in the Lagos administration as an opportunity to achieve “a greater degree of consensus on the constitutional innovations that the government aims to push in military affairs,” reported El Mercurio (July 11). According to administration sources, El Mercurio added, “the virtual end of the judicial road in the case against Pinochet removes from the national community an element that muddied political dialogue and distracted authorities and military commanders from their more appropriate tasks.”

The ruling almost certainly marks the end of Pinochet’s political career, the conservative La Tercera (July 11) said. “The general is practically obliged to lead a low-profile life, since the ruling [that he is ill] is temporary, and the plaintiffs will be alert for any situation that seems irregular so that they can seek to have the case reopened,” La Tercera observed.

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