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.

Monday, March 8, 2010

THE CHILEAN MILITARY AND THE EARTHQUAKE - Sorting the Chaff from the Reality

Nine full days after the quake and tsunami which hit much of Chile on
February 27, it is still very difficult to get exact facts and figures.
Much of this is due to the time needed for a proper evaluation of the
situation, but there is also a substantial aspect of protecting backsides
from criticism and/or make political capital of what was or was not done.
This paper, based as much as possible on declarations made by those
directly in charge or involved, cannot be taken as gospel. Its main
purpose is to develop the section in my previous note dedicated to the
role and consequences of the catastrophe as far as the armed forces are
concerned. However, this also has to be put in the more general context of

I am making this further effort because I am already seeing the latter day
Roubini clones already coming up with obscure papers proving that they
predicted it all, and getting media coverage both in Chile and abroad. I
have been complaining about the lack of preparation towards natural
catastrophes for as long as I can remember, but interestingly not a single
Chilean or foreign journalist has sought my views (or recognised my

SILLY POLITICS Before all this happened and Mrs. Bachelet was preparing
for an apotheosis of an exit with a popularity rating even Saddam Hussein
only ever dreamt of, it was clear that this success was due to her ability
to do nothing and get involved in as little as possible. The phenomenon is
well known in the corporate world with executives rising to the top by
smiling and being nice, staying out of internal and external conflicts,
and thus be unfettered by heavy loads keeping them on the seabed.
Unfortunately, this attitude might work in normal times, but it becomes
totally out of place when there is a major crisis. You do not get any
bonus points for doing nothing in a crisis.

With the outgoing president and her entourage eyeing a comeback in 2014,
if it is true, as it most probably is, that her advisers and some
ministers insisted that it was “aesthetically” unacceptable to leave
office with soldiers keeping order in the streets, this is unacceptable.
Despite the shortcomings, which will be mentioned later, the armed forces
are the ones nearest to having the infrastructure and personnel to deal
with such a major event.

If they did not want them to be involved, then they should have made
efforts to develop the alternatives. This they obviously did not. When the
previous ONEMI (national emergency office) head was fired, to be replaced
by his deputy, several retired generals and admirals applied for the job,
but were rejected in favour of a political crony.

A law destined to upgrade the institution, like much of the legislation
needed to modernise the country, has been sleeping in congress for years.
Its budget is minimal (the natives regard any protection against
hypothetical risks a waste of money and resources), and even when
something is done, it is not done properly. In one affected municipality,
emergency equipment was bought in 2007 but never installed. An offer of
Russian dual purpose Beriev fire-fighting and light transport seaplanes
was rejected (”what will we do with them for the rest of the year?”). I
could go on for pages, but most of us living in Chile have had (belatedly)
an earful of what was not done and what was done wrong. Let me just
mention the absence of an emergency communications network, including
satellite phones, an older model of which a visiting Ms. Clinton
ceremonially gave to president Bachelet. At the lower end of technology,
radio hams had been asking for years for help with which to buy the
batteries and autonomous generators they would need in an emergency. No
money ever came. Let me not even start about the shameful situation of the
fire service, having to beg hand-me-down vehicles from European towns and
getting their wives to mend their hoses as if they were socks. Many years
ago, a major plan to provide cheap insurance for lower-cost housing was
announced, and quickly torpedoed by the insurance industry itself.

STRATEGIC PLANNING “National Security” and “Territorial Integrity”,
together with “New Threats” are part and parcel of the seminar and
academic paper circuit these days, but if you look at Chapter IX of the
latest National Defence Book, there is a single reference to “natural
catastrophes”. You need a magnifying glass to find it, and it is in an
extract from another publication.

National Security is to protect against anything which affects the normal
functioning and infrastructure of a country, much beyond “integrity of
borders”. Thus, in a country prone to natural disasters and particularly
earthquakes, they have to be part and parcel of strategic planning. Some,
including the military themselves, might not like that role, in which case
a sufficiently strong civilian alternative has to be found. However, for a
medium-sized economy with limited means, it would be silly to duplicate
resources. The exception is in terms of specialist manpower for prediction
and evaluation, which should consist of highly trained civilian experts.
Whether they work (preferably) in a separate civilian entity, or in
military offices, is an administrative detail.

Based on such premises, the equipment of the armed forces has to take into
account the fact that natural catastrophes, and in particular earthquakes
occur in Chile with more frequency than wars with Peru (I do not mention
Argentina because there never was a war between the two countries) . It is
therefore obvious that even if you buy all the surplus F-16s that shady
characters lurking in Santiago back alleys can offer, they jointly can
less transport water supplies than a single medium-sized helicopter.
Transport aircraft with short landing capabilities, and larger lift
helicopters have been wanted for years, but it turns out they have to
borrow two from Brazil for the quake, on top of field hospitals from
Argentina, Cuba and Peru, and two USAF Hercules.

Nobody even mentioned the shortage of heavy trucks for the army, whose
purchase has also been part of the traditional Latin American novel (Cien
Años de Pláticas) . I will be polite enough not to mention the
Israeli-equipped Condor AWACS, which was supposed to provide
communications in times of national emergency.

The above blame does not solely rely on the armed forces, because the
Finance ministry, despite assigned funds being available, has often
delayed, cancelled or reduced purchases in order to keep up the cosmetics
of public finances, over and above urgent needs. Unless you all developed
amnesia as a result of the quake, you can do me the courtesy to remember
that I have mentioned all these points in papers and the few interviews I
have been tolerated to give.

ORGANISATIONAL SHORTCOMINGS A number of anecdotes are coming out, not
just in the press but from the mouth of those directly in charge such as
the Defence Minister and military chiefs. The list given below is a
mixture of all the above, and the only aspect I can vouch for personally
from various experiences is the “office hours” profile that much military
activity has taken. When one of the commanders in chief, (the army one)
said a few years ago that his institution was “Chile’s largest
corporation”, the concept should not have been taken so for granted.
Defence, like diplomacy, even without war or catastrophes, is not a 9-6
Monday to Friday job. The whole of the officer corps cannot disappear on
holiday during February, leaving much lower rank subordinates in charge
(sometimes even their secretaries are away simultaneously).

It is now officially told that no helicopter could be found for the
president to go South on the morning after the quake because transport
difficulties stopped pilots getting to the base. Apparently they do not
live on the base, which can be excused, but why not have a couple of them
on duty at the base round the clock 365 days a year? Also a helicopter
fully serviced and fuelled (another story says that the lack of power
obliged hand-pumping of fuel which takes longer. Why aren’t there any
emergency generators for such things?). The fact that one of the
(insufficient) numbers of sea sensors, unluckily the one closest to the
epicentre, was not working is also inexcusable. They should be checked
daily. Yes, daily, including week ends and the month of February.

One paper reported that the duty officer at the unfortunately named (SHOA)
navy oceanographic service could not communicate properly with Hawaii
because of language difficulties. It seems that communications problem
also existed in Spanish. The Defence minister himself reported that the
newly appointed Joint Chief of Staff, speaking to SHOA on the telephone,
could not make heads or tails of what the guy at the other end was saying,
so he passed the phone (actually, he passed the buck) to president
Bachelet standing next to him. Whether true or not, the protocol and
bureaucracy are bad enough in normal times, but this is not a ball at XVII
th century Versailles. Many people have said and rightly, that a seaside
quake of 8.8 should automatically mean a tsunami alert.

A CLIMATIC PEARL HARBOUR The Navy’s main base at Talcahuano, near
Concepcion, suffered heavy damage and is 80 % destroyed. It is, or was,
the HQ of the submarine fleet and other smaller craft, but in particular
it was the home of the prime naval shipyard in the region, servicing not
only the Chilean fleet, but also refitting and building vessels for
overseas customers. That business is lost, even though official
communiqués say that an Ecuadorean submarine in refit and an Icelandic
patrol ship being built only suffered minor damage, as did a Chilean
oceanographic research ship.

How will the navy service its fleet in the meantime, as it could take at
least 3 years and maybe longer to put ASMAR back on track? The only local
alternative is the privately owned ASENAVE yard in Valdivia, further South
from the earthquake zone. Unfortunately, that yard is up river and out of
reach in its present shape for frigates, though submarines can access it.
There are yards near Buenos Aires and in Brazil, but the navy may not want
to have one of its “historical enemies” nosing too close to its vessels in
Argentina, whereas the Brazilians are expensive and with not exactly a
high reputation. Vessels may have to be sent to Britain or Holland with
all the cost that it involves, on top of the U$ 1.3 bn damage to ASMAR
(some of it covered by insurance).

The sea wave also broke the moorings of two out of service vessels (a
destroyer and a frigate), which drifted in the bay for a while, but the
two Scorpene submarines appear to have had a lucky escape. The Simpson
sailed out and the Carrera, which was initially pushed back to shore by
the second wave, was heroically pulled back by a tug, quite a performance
in the midst of what was going on.

The base still has 40 personnel unaccounted for, though it is not clear if
they were swept away or have gone AWOL.

THE AIR FORCE, FIDAE ETC. Though other services are participating, the
air force is now at the centre of the air relief effort. This raises the
question of the outlook for the FIDAE show, scheduled to start the week of
March 22. Initially, communiqués were sent out to exhibitors declaring
“business as usual”, but as the installations are being used for
organising and despatching relief supplies, and many foreign visitors are
understandably somewhat nervous regarding travel to Chile, the decision is
being kicked over to the next administration. I can only insist that a
cancellation would give a negative image, and put at risk the fair’s
future, unless it is totally unavoidable. It is also wrong to leave the
decision for the last minute, because there are many people and goods that
need to be moved. The Brazilian competitor LAAD is already bad-mouthing
FIDAE in order to attract business for itself.

THE ARMY We have not heard of any substantial damage to army
installations, and to the extent that they have more personnel (60 % of
all armed forces) than anyone else, are bearing the main brunt of land
operations, curfew supervision, etc.. The boast of the former CiC general
Cheyre, that he could have had 7,000 troops on the ground, within 3 hours
of the quake, has to be taken with a pinch of salt. By the way, one of the
construction companies whose building collapsed in Santiago is part of the
consortium building the new army HQ.

Nevertheless, with two army generals overseeing the state of exception on
the ground, an army general at the helm of the new joint chief of staff
post, and the probably choice of general Izurieta as Undersecretary for
Defence, the army has reached its aim to re-establish the rank seniority
it was disputing with the navy. The latter, between the tsunami alert
controversy and the destruction of its prime operating facility, is now on
the defensive.

WHAT LESSONS AND WHAT ACTION? In really modern countries, rather than
short-term cross accusations and rumour, the urgency would be to organise
relief and reconstruction, and after heads had cooled down and more
information is at hand, organise and independent commission of inquiry to
apportion blame and recommend action. In Chile, that is not possible,
because of the simple fact that there are no “independent” people of any
kind. Everyone has a personal, political, professional or ideological axe
to grind. Such a commission would order Ms. Bachelet to appear before it
and name the “group of generals and admirals” she claimed had advised her
not to declare a curfew, because this is contradicted by the statement of
the new joint chief of staff, nominally in charge of coordinating such
matters, who says he at least was never consulted.

It has been once again proved that the approach to security (about which I
have also written many times) is a cultural matter inherited through El
Andalus from the fatalism of the Levant, and will be very difficult to
change. This goes hand in hand with the reluctance to spend money on
protection which shows no immediate return or media advantage (how many
votes do you get by inaugurating an insurance policy?).

The country’s military defence has shown its vulnerability, to the extent
that we now know that you can paralyse communications and transport by
hitting some power stations (or just transmission lines), the
installations of the three mobile phone companies, and a few bridges. The
country is all yours.

HUEVADA DE LA SEMANA Would it have been different if the quake had
happened under Piñera’s watch?. Well, nobody has dared to mention that the
mayor of Concepción for the past 10 years, Jacqueline Van Rysselberghe,
belongs to the rightwing of the UDI party. Before her, both her father and
grandfather had also been mayors of Concepcion at one time or the other.
From March 11. the lady (an Opus Dei psychiatrist) will become intendente
(Prefect) of the whole BioBio region of which Concepcion is the capital.
Mayors are the first line of inspection, defence and relief in case of
emergencies. The father had a court case against him brought by the
municipality for some financial fraud, but proceedings were dropped as
soon as the daughter became mayoress.

As for the intendente-designate of Santiago, he is a partner in another
construction firm with a collapsed building. Mind you, the system is of
equal opportunity. The family of a senior executive at the Central Bank
control the building company which is responsible for not one, but several
collapsed apartment blocks.

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