Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Polemic Voyage of the Esmeralda

The Navy's sail training ship is making history by having women sailors on board its instructional cruise for the first time. Of 314 crew members, 47 are women. Three are instructional officers, including one from Colombia's navy and one from Ecuador's. Two female sailors from Uruguay's navy were invited, too. While Chile fosters an image of gender equality and cooperation with other nations, the four-month voyage is not always getting good publicity. A group of Chileans who escaped from Gen. Augusto Pinochet's rule and settled in Canada are protesting the Esmeralda's arrival in western Canadian ports this August. They cite investigations that showed the ship was used as a detention and torture center. This is not exactly new. In prior years, the Esmeralda's docking at various ports has triggered protests. Nearly 40 years have passed since the human rights abuses took place, yet protesters continue to aim their anger at sailors who weren't even born when these events took place. At the same time, you have to wonder: What in the world was the Navy thinking by using a gorgeous sail ship and a symbol of national pride as a detention center?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Bolivian Troops Cross Into Chile

A Bolivian army patrol strayed into Chilean territory, where police intercepted it and took the 14 soldiers into custody. All indications are that it was an accidental crossing, and the two countries are resolving the manner as cordially as could be expected. Chile sent a formal complaint to La Paz; Bolivia's government called it an isolated incident. Nonetheless, press reports reveal some surprising aspects of the Bolivian force. The patrol, for example, was in military uniforms but was riding civilian vehicles -- with Chilean license plates. Most of the troops were in a Toyota van and the rest in a Daihatsu SUV. Police first spotted the van around 2 am Friday, June 17, about 270 km northeast of Iquique, then the SUV. The 14 Bolivians were poorly armed, with a total of three 9mm pistols and two 5.56mm assault rifles. Chile's police treated the incident as an illegal immigrant crossing, and sent the Bolivians to a judge for questioning and likely deportation. Bolivia's government says it had recently beefed up patrols along the Chilean border to combat the smuggling of stolen vehicles into Bolivia. In fact, the Toyota and the Daihatsu had been confiscated from smugglers. While the incident is working itself out, it comes at a tense time, just as Bolivia intensifies efforts to win back access to the Pacific Ocean. Bolivia lost its coastal territory in the 1879-1883 war against Chile. UPDATE: The patrol was returned to Bolivia on Sunday, June 19, without charges. Bolivia's government maintains no harm was meant, and that the patrol wandered into Chile in an area where the border is not clearly marked. The daily La Tercera, quoting Chile's foreign ministry, says accidental Bolivian and Peruvian troop crossings aren't that unusual, with at least three incidents occurring in recent years. Regarding the Chilean-registered vehicles the soldiers were using, Bolivia says the troops took control of them after being abandoned by smugglers.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Uh-Oh

Voters in Peru elected Ollanta Humala as their next president, sending shock waves through Chile. Humala, of course, is the leftist politician who frequently has expressed hostility toward Chile. He wants Chile to apologize for a recent case of espionage and for policies in the past the he believes harmed Peru. As a former army officer, Humala trained to fight a war with Chile -- another fact not lost on Chileans. During his political campaign, the nationalist Humala adopted a softer tone than when he unsuccessfully ran for president in 2006. He distanced himself from Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. But is this kinder and gentler Humala for real, or just a product of political necessity? Humala's post-election comments so far are conciliatory. A key milestone in Chile-Peru relations will be the ruling in the International Court over Peru's claims over its maritime border with Chile. Humala says he'll abide by whatever ruling the court makes.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Navy Keeping P-3 Orions Fit

Chile's navy is not necessarily giving up on its P-3 Orion maritime reconnaissance aircraft. An aviation engineering company in New Zealand just conducted an eight-month refit for one of the planes, an indication that Chile plans to keep at least some of the P-3s flying for many years. This came to light with news of trouble during a test flight in New Zealand. According to the company's website, Safe Air has done maintenance work on four Chilean P-3A3 Orions and it calls Chile one of its key maintenance customers. The Navy has plans to replace its P-3 fleet with EADS/CASA C-295 Persuader aircraft, although not immediately. Chile acquired eight Orions from U.S. surplus inventories in 1992-94, according to the SIPRI arms transfers database. Four have been kept for spares, and one was converted into a transport plane, leaving three for maritime patrol. The planes were delivered without most sensors, but in 2003 Chile purchased three AN/APS-115 radars, a standard for the P-3 fleet. The radar searches the sea surface and can detect submarines at shallow depths. Update: A story in Jane's Defence Weekly notes that the P-3 overhauled in New Zealand has more structural damage than expected and will need more work. This has caused the Navy to rethink its plans to extend the service life of its Orions and consider using its options to purchase more C-295s.