Peru, Chile ramp up territorial dispute

Chilean soldiers stand at attention in the village of Rininahue on June 5, 2011.
Credit: Claudio Santana

LIMA, Peru — Historical tensions between Chile and Peru are on the rise ahead of a keenly awaited ruling on the South American nations’ disputed maritime frontier.

The latest source of friction has been a leaked draft of Santiago’s national defense strategy, published in Peru, in which Chilean President Sebastian Pinera warns that his country must be ready for armed conflict.

Chile “is not exempt from seeing itself wrapped up in an international crisis or even being the object of armed aggression toward it territory,” Peruvian newspaper La Republica quoted from the document, titled National Security and Defense Strategy 2012-2014.

“Therefore the country needs to count on a credible capacity for deterrence, tailored to act in its legitimate defense,” the text adds.

That might sound like boilerplate bureaucratic wording from almost any government regarding its defense planning. But it has struck a nerve in Peru, where a historical and sometimes bloody rivalry with Chile remains deeply embedded in the national psyche.

It also comes ahead of a ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague — the United Nations’ highest court for disputes between member states — expected early next year, in a suit brought by Peru over the international maritime boundary with Chile.

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There are growing expectations in both countries that Peru will win the court case. Both Pinera and his Peruvian counterpart, President Ollanta Humala, have insisted their countries will fully respect the ruling. But other senior politicians in both countries have recently strayed off message.

Both nations’ defense ministers have raised the possibility of armed conflict between the two nations. Although not to be ruled out entirely, that eventuality is regarded by most analysts as improbable.

Humala’s own radical past, before becoming president and moderating his rhetoric, has not helped calm nerves. In 2007, he led a march to the border with Chile in protest against the current sea boundary. His detractors accused him of populism and needlessly stoking tensions.

Hugo de Zela, a former Peruvian ambassador, wrote in La Republica that Chile’s defense text is “strange, disconcerting and subliminally threatening.”

He added that, in spite of Pinera’s remarks about Chile’s respect for international law, “this document formulates a justification for the government’s arms race, breaking the equilibrium not just with neighboring countries but also the region.”

Pinera’s office declined to comment, instead referring GlobalPost to Chile’s defense ministry, which did not respond.

Peruvians and Bolivians are taught from an early age about the 1879-1883 War of the Pacific, in which Chile seized mineral-rich areas from both neighbors.

In Bolivia’s case, that included a slice of land separating Chile and Peru and reaching to the Pacific. La Paz’s continued claims to a “sovereign” outlet to the sea could now be the only issue that unites leftist President Evo Morales and some of his fiercest conservative critics.

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Meanwhile, Peruvians and Chileans love to debate — and not always politely — who invented pisco, the fortified wine produced in northern Chile and southern Peru, and perhaps even more importantly who now produces the highest quality of the liquor.

In recent months, Pinera’s administration has offered Bolivia a customs-exempt seaport of its own on Chilean soil, but that has done little to appease Morales. His government is now preparing a similar legal case against Santiago to that of Peru, and the Bolivian president has even described Chile as being “nervous.”

The dispute comes against a backdrop of Chile’s traditional heavy defense spending — at least by Latin American standards, with the region shelling out relatively less of its GDP on the military than many others.

In a bid to promote trust and reduce weapons spending, the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) recently announced the details of national defense budgets in the region. The full report will not be published until August but numerous media reports of the Unasur announcement have shown Chile spends more than twice Peru on its military.

Although repeats are increasingly unthinkable, the region was wracked by savage wars in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Ecuador and Peru even fought a brief border war in 1995, although three years later the two countries settled their dispute with a new treaty.

From 2006 to 2010, Unasur’s aggregate defense spending rose from $17.6 billion to $33.2 billion, with regional giant Brazil accounting for the lion’s share of that outlay — 43 percent.

Colombia, whose army is still locked in a decades-long conflict with left-wing rebels, was second with 17 percent and Venezuela, whose President Hugo Chavez claims to be preparing for a possible US attack, was third with just under 11 percent. Chile accounted for 9 percent and Peru 4 percent.

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Overall, Latin America spends 0.91 percent of its GDP on defense. That compares favorably with the United States — by far the world’s biggest military spender — where the Pentagon gets about 4 percent of US GDP to spend.

The Chilean Congress is now also debating the repeal of the so-called Restricted Copper Law, passed in 1958, that stipulated 10 percent of all state revenues from copper — Chile’s main export — be earmarked for military spending.

That law has increasingly been seen as anachronistic and irrelevant to modern Chile’s strategic priorities, as copper prices have soared and the nation emerges from the shadow of General Augusto Pinochet’s long, brutal military dictatorship.

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