Living On

Armen is heavily missed. His absence left a hole in independent observation of the political and economic risk situation in Latin America. Beyond the merely analytical though his work was wide-ranging from Armenian philanthropy and social observation of Latin and European lifestyles through to being a "fly on the wall" at the Cannes Film Festival every year and reporting back on the more exotic foibles of the international jet-set.

We miss his wit, his sense of history and his bon mots (in French, Armenian and, even, Turkish). Armen was very much a product of the Levant but then, like so many other Levantines, converted to an international stage where they offer insight into all around them. This record tries to humbly accumulate his collected writings for public consumption so they can be preserved and appreciated for the urgency of the moment in which they were written to the timelessness of the observations.

How best to categorise the uncategorisable? Maybe Armen could be described as an Armenian/Anglo/Franco Samuel Pepys for our times.....

It is ironic that ultimately it was the very mediocrity and self-satisfaction of the Chilean "system", which he documented so thoroughly, that brought about his tragic end.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

IS TERRORISM RETURNING TO CHILE ? In fact, did it ever go away ?

A number of violent incidents over a short period of time have shattered the placid tranquillity of the Chilean scene. They have made both local and expatriate observers wonder if the problem-free security reputation enjoyed by the country was to prove as artificial as its totally unjustified claim of having little or no corruption. A lot of discussion and soul-searching is taking place. What is really the situation ?


Within a couple of weeks, we have had attacks on the premises of Scotiabank, McDonalds, the state-owned Banco del Estado, and an oil pipeline. The targets were in Santiago and in the South, and with the exception of the hamburger joint which was fire-bombed, the rest was carried out with explosive (which appears to be common dynamite though contradictory versions have been given). Material damage was variable, but there were no human victims. The McDonald incident was part of a wider protest to free "political prisoners" in a particular conflictive part of Santiago, and the Banco del Estado bombing was claimed for the same purpose by a hitherto unknown group.

In fact, incidents of this nature (admittedly with lower explosive charges) have been common in Chile for years, particularly to commemorate certain "revolutionary" anniversaries linked to episodes from the struggle against the Pinochet regime. The novelty on this occasion was the concentration of the instances over a short period, and their being considered at a time of international hysteria about "terrorism", real or imagined. Political declarations and media attention on the subject have abounded.

Chile has had another festering security problem, concentrated in the
central-southern region historically the homeland of the indigenous Mapuche
groups. Protesting against what they consider unfair exploitation of their
tribal lands (mainly forestry and hydro-electric power), against a long
background of neglect and discrimination, indigenous extremists have been
attacking installations equipment of forestry companies.

COUNTER MEASURES Wary of the need to maintain a middle course between
reassuring the population and business community, as well as not creating
unnecessary concern nor worsen the situation, the authorities have been in
a quandary as to what to do. Some years ago, they had quite a bit of egg on
their face when someone invented the story of "dozens" of Iranians who had
entered the country with a view of creating terrorist unrest. They turned
out to be as real as GWB's weapons of mass destruction, and the local
security services were embarrassed (privately- the matter did not get much
public coverage). More recently, some expulsions f Arab residents from
Northern Chile were based on very tenuous evidence, if any. On this
occasion. although they have nominated a special magistrate to investigate
the Banco del Estado bombing, they have also tried to play down the whole

On the Mapuche trouble font, the government has been accused of going soft
in "not imposing the rule of law by every means", as called for by the
business community. They have indeed not sent masses of police and troops
to the area, and have kept legal sanctions to those caught at a rather low
level. They certainly do not want another Chiapas on their hands, nor the
sort of indigenous unrest that is causing havoc in the countryside of
Bolivia and Ecuador. For those who think that Chile has no indigenous
population, it might be worthwhile to note that over a million Chileans
described themselves as such in the 2002 census, in a country where it does
your work or social prospects little good.

Some think that the creation of the National Intelligence Agency (ANI)
which is winding itself through the congressional procedure, would improve
the ability to counter any unsavoury movements. The impression one gets is
that Chile is creating something which did not exist before. In fact, the
law will only enhance and restructure the efficient existing but
understaffed civilian service DISPI, increasing (moderately) its personnel
and resources. The task is made more difficult by the replacement of
traditional structured extremist movements by loser, even spontaneous
groups which are numerous, with little formal structure and therefore
harder to penetrate. This does not mean they are not trying. Years ago,
military intelligence had an expert on such movements (well at least one I
met personally) who grew his hair and beard and lived in marginal
"poblaciones" studying trends and subversive graffiti. I have also
previously written (April 2001) on the threats from student power. Military
intelligence is involved in such matters though how much they share with
the civilians remains to be seen (another theoretical aim for the ANI).

With October municipal elections just 4 months away, and the
pre-campaigning for the December 2005 presidential elections at the crucial
stage of determining the ruling coalition candidates among up to 8
potential contenders, it is also easy to make political capital out of the
situation. Chile has a long tradition of bombings, including some by "agent
provocateurs" from Right-wing groups to throw an anguished population in
the arms of the "law and order" candidates and parties. This does not mean
that the Alianza por Chile opposition would condone such acts (though
current judicial enquiries appear to show they have been condoning under
unsavoury practices), but there are always extremists who think it helps
the cause.

seriously worried about Chile and terrorism if the sort of thing not seen
since the early 1990's starts taking place: political assassinations, the
kidnapping of major local and foreign businessmen, attacks on industrial
and touristic installations or a major gas pipe-line, or the disruption of
a high-profile international event such as the November APEC meeting.

In the meantime, if the real worry is the risk to residents and visitors.
Let it be known that the national approach to security is such as to make
the place already very dangerous. Whereas the non-wearing of seat belts
(such as killed the governor of a northern province just the other day) may
be a voluntary act (though seeing military and police personnel driving
around without seat belts raises a strong question mark about their
approach to other risks, such as properly maintaining the Hercules which
was carrying troops to Haiti but had to turn back because of mechanical
trouble), other examples of neglect have killed or wounded several people
recently. This included the death of a young boy in a Santiago building
whose gas supply as declared faulty but not repaired, the injury of a
father and daughter on a badly maintained ride at a fun fair in the poshest
part of Santiago, the escape of a lion from an unauthorised circus in a
poor part of town (you see how democratic is carelessness in Chilean
society). There are plenty of land mines around Torres del Paine, one of
the country's main tourist attractions. Last but not least, a report on
major Latin American towns just published by the American Medical
Association singles out Santiago as the capital where non-smoking
restrictions are the least enforced. So, without any help from Karl Marx or
Che Guevara, living in or visiting Chile can be dangerous indeed.


As a closing anecdote, I recently made a direct approach to civilian and military authorities in order to get details of a system which is designed to add "transparency" to a certain procedure related to defence. Though I finally managed to get the information though other means, none of the authorities directly involved approached even acknowledged the request.

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