SANTIAGO, Chile – The $30 billion cost of Chile's devastating earthquake may give its new president the ammunition he needs to take on the military like no leftist ever could, dismantling a dictatorship-era law that devotes 10 percent of Chile's copper revenues to defense spending.
The copper law has guaranteed huge budgets over the years for one of the world's freest-spending militaries, especially as copper prices boomed. From 2006 to mid-last year, Chile's state-owned Codelco mining company transferred an estimated $4.2 billion to the military, which by law could spend it without congressional oversight.
And spend it did: Chile has outpaced every other major South American economy in military expenditures but Colombia, where leftist rebels are waging guerrilla war. According to the World Bank, military spending equals 3.5 percent of the economy in Chile, where GDP has grown past $160 billion in recent years.
Chile's navy has renovated its surface fleet with English and Dutch frigates and built two new Scorpion submarines. The army bought more than 100 Leopard tanks from Germany. The Air Force acquired 10 new U.S. F-16 war planes and 18 second-hand F-16s from Holland.
Every other year, the world's defense industry comes to Chile seeking more business at its major air show. But the quake has shifted priorities, a reality reflected in the thinner than usual crowds at this week's show in the capital, Santiago.
"Certainly there's going to be substantial changes in the size and pace of Chile's modernization," said Bill Dalson, Lockheed Martin's international director for the Americas. "There just have to be, because of the economic priorities right now."
Overcoming military resistance won't be easy. But as the first conservative president since Chile emerged from dictatorship in 1990, Sebastian Pinera has a better chance of changing the copper law than his five center-left predecessors, analysts say.
"No one is going to accuse Pinera of wanting to undermine the military," said Patricio Navia, a Chilean political analyst who teaches at New York University.
But Pinera will have to drive a wedge through his own center-right coalition to get it done. He faces fierce resistance from within Chile's two right-wing parties, and needs some of their votes to push any changes through the divided legislature.
Conservative lawmakers are already balking at any reduction in the defense budget.
"No matter what, we've got to maintain the same levels of investment," said defense committee chairman Alberto Cardemil, who was a subsecretary of the interior under the military regime. Earthquake victims also need a strong military, Cardemil points out, since the armed forces are directing aid, providing security and rebuilding naval bases ravaged by the tsunami on Feb. 27.
Military opinion still sways many Chileans, and the armed forces have generated considerable good will since the disaster. After stores were looted and fears of mob rule arose near the epicenter, Chileans stood and cheered when soldiers finally arrived to re-establish order.
Former Army chief Juan Emilio Cheyre acknowledges the need for more transparency, at least. In a newspaper editorial before the earthquake, he said the military must establish its fiscal discipline and can't be seen as "preying on Codelco."
But he expressed a concern, common among military brass, that lawmakers would politicize strategic decisions.
Chile's military benefited from copper profits before the 1973 coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, but the practice was codified later to guarantee that the military could always count on 10 percent, and that its spending decisions would be beyond legislative review.
Over the past two decades, as the center-left coalition expanded social programs to address Chile's yawning gap between rich and poor, progressive politicians have eagerly eyed the portion of copper revenues steered away from the civilian budget.
In the proposal advanced by departing President Michelle Bachelet last year, the existing copper law would be replaced by a 12-year financing plan, broken into four-year phases to provide some insulation from political pressures.
Pinera backed Bachelet's plan while campaigning for president and reaffirmed his intentions to follow through once elected.
In his first post-election news conference, Pinera promised "to end the regime of 10 percent discounted from gross revenue to finance our armed forces and to replace it with a system of stable and adequate financing through the national budget."
"Now he has a good excuse with the reconstruction," said Navia. "It's really up to Pinera."