By Alejandro Kirk*

The myth that in Chile the military is basically disciplined, professional, non-deliberative and respectful of the democratic decisions of the people seems to be floating again in the country, in relation to the tasks of the Constitutional Convention convened last year to draft Chile’s first ever democratically-conceived Constitution.

The last time the generals were seen so respectful of the people’s will was in the period 1070-1973, when President Salvador Allende was trying to lead a socialist revolution through peaceful means and within the framework of liberal democracy. It ended badly, as we all know.

“Today, coups d’état are unthinkable” is usually what local politicians, analysts and “experts” say, in trying to explain why the role of the Armed Forces does not appear as a priority the in current hectic constitutional debates: the Convention is supposed to come up with a final text in July, 2022.

Behind this “explanation”, which explains so little, one may sense however a whiff of fear: better not to wake the sleeping dogs, because they are still there.

Who did first dare to touch the subject was former Navy chief and former senator Jorge Arancibia, a staunch defender of the Pinochet regime and of the 1980 Constitution. Strangely enough, in 2021 Arancibia was elected to a Convention he fiercely opposed and whose task is to replace  Pînochet’s Constitution.

So here he is, heading a group of extreme right Convention members, to try and confirm the role Pinochet and his patrons envisioned for the armed forces: permanent guardian of the limits within which civilians may or may not act.


This possibility prompted a response, by a group of former professional officers, from different military branches and headed by Juan Painecura, a Mapuche (Chile’s main indigenous nation) retired Infantry Captain (R) and former professor of Combat Operational Arts Juan Painecura.

They presented in recent days a Popular Initiative of Constitutional Norm, with the explicit purpose of radically changing “the character and nature of the Armed Forces, and those of Order and Security”.

The “popular initiative”, which requires the support of at least 15,000 citizens, is one of several venues by which issues to be included in the new Constitutions can be introduced into the Convention’s agenda.

These officers are not just any officers: they all attended military schools in Cuba and most have combat experience in Nicaragua, helping the Sandinistas to strike the final blow to that country’s Somoza’s bloody dictatorship in 1979. They remained as career officers in Cuba’s Army until they resigned to join the armed struggle against Pinochet in the early 80s.

Combat experience, beyond killing unarmed civilians, is what the Chilean officers don’t have since the 19th Century.

The need to change Chile’s military at its roots is based, according to the published text, on “the history of the Armed Forces and the police regarding their intervention in the political life of the country, which summarizes more than 23 actions with bloody results for the people”.

The document lists such violent interventions in favor of large landowners, businessmen and foreign companies, highlighting the “preventive” cold-blooded massacre of between 2000 and 3000 unarmed nitrate workers at the Santa María School in Iquique (Atacama desert), in 1907.

“In this area, the 1973 coup d’état and the 17 years of dictatorial regime are particularly relevant”, the proposal underlines. The military bodies are today “a powerful enclave of domination, with remnants of definitions made by the military dictatorship and sustained in the 1980 Constitution,” it adds.

“Tacitly (the military establishment) constitutes a threat to any type of change in society and the State,” they claim.

The proposal of the former Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, on the other hand, emphasizes the conservative and reactionary sentinel role always assigned to the military.

“It is important that the Constitution specifies that being “obedient” should be understood as referring to the ‘Institutional Order'”, says the text presented by Arancibia.

In other words, in a Pinochet-like Constitution, the Armed Forces would remain autonomous and disobey the President, the Congress, or any power of the State, if the latter tried to modify the “Institutional Order” by any means that the generals considered inconvenient for the national interests.

The Popular Initiative unambiguously establishes the rules of non-deliberation, political abstinence and obedience of the military institutions to the democratically created civil powers, highlighting the role of the President of the Republic as Commander in Chief both in times of peace and armed conflict.

Arancibia adds, agreeing with current and outgoing President Sebastián Piñera: “The dramatic reality of delinquency, organized crime, terrorism and drug trafficking experienced in the Southern Macro Zone, in different cities and localities of the national territory leads to consider the need for the Armed Forces to interfere in matters of internal public order”.

This text refers to the struggle by Mapuche and other ethnic groups to reclaim ancestral lands expropriated by force by the both the Chilean state and large landowners in violation of domestic and international treaties.

Such paragraph is nothing more than the reiteration of the “National Security Doctrine” imposed in all Latin American armies in the 1960s and 1970s as a systematization of the “counterinsurgency struggle” deployed by the United States to stop the insurrectional wave raised by the Cuban Revolution since 1959.

This doctrine defines an “internal enemy” among the local population, equivalent to any external one.

For the officers who support the Popular Initiative, this internal mission is “similar to the characteristics of an invading force of conquest and domination”, but against its own people, whose representatives grouped in the category of “internal enemy” makes them deserving of annihilation, as it happened in the dictatorships of Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.

When in November 2019 Piñera tried to declare a state of siege and take the military to the streets to openly repress popular protest, they were reluctant. According to reputed historian Gabriel Salazar, such reluctance was due more to the “rational character” of the Army than to an ideological stance.

The Army’s chief, Ricardo Martínez, then issued a crytical warning to his own and opponents: if the Army went to the streets, he said, it would not be to attempt a “proportional response” (typical of the forces of public order), because the operational mission of his institution does not contemplate proportionality, but the annihilation of the adversary in the most expeditious, effective and demolishing way possible.

Piñera then tried, unsuccessfully, to promote a law of impunity for human rights violations that the armed forces and law enforcement could commit in the fulfillment of the mission to impose public order.


Ex-Admiral Arancibia also addresses the subject of Human Rights, seemingly without much conviction.

He says: “Following some trends present in Comparative Law, it seems important to consider that the training given in the Armed Forces’ Master Schools should give special importance to the contents on democracy and human rights”.

The relevant phrase here is: “it seems important”.

Painecura and his study group underline that the main objective of a new Military and Citizen Security Doctrine is “to ensure the prohibition ‘forever’ of any intervention (in social processes) with the use of weapons and cause death or physical, psychological or moral harm to any person, sector, link, collective or groups of the peoples integrated in the State”.

And they conclude: “It is a matter of preserving respect for life and human rights as an inalienable value and principle.”


While Arancibia does not contemplate any essential modification of the State as we have known it up to now, Painecura considers fundamental for a new Military Doctrine, a political definition of the State, which he describes as “Plurinational, Democratic, Latin American and Contemporary”, oriented towards peace, solidarity, cooperation, non-interference and active defense of the environment, among other attributes.

The class composition of the military establishment is briefly pointed out as one of the factors of permanent threat to the democratic stability of the country, and among several factors are the elements that determine the admission to officers’ schools, in which today are decisive both the social level of the applicants, and the belonging to a hereditary caste of conservative lineage that some -themselves and the press of the system- call “military family” and others, perhaps more accurately, “military party”.

For an outside observer, the proposal of the ex-officers headed by Painecura may lack clearer elements regarding the necessarily feminist character of the State, or proposals such as reforming the admission system to the officers’ schools, to make it identical to that of the universities, thus widening up the officers social and cultural composition.

A more detailed mention of the conformation of the police forces is also missing, in which the eminently military character of Carabineros police stands out, which, strictly speaking, more than a police force, is an auxiliary force of the Army in public order and border custody tasks, just like the National Guards of the United States.


Note: Former Captain Juan Antonio Painecura Antinao is today an outstanding Mapuche goldsmith. As a student and militant of the Communist Youth, he was arrested and tortured by Pinochet’s military-corporate dictatorship and expelled from Chile. He later joined an academy of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba, where he graduated as a second lieutenant of Infantry. After participating in the Nicaraguan liberation war, he became a professor of Operational Art at the Antonio Maceo Inter-Arms Officers School, south of Havana. As a captain, he retired from the FAR to join the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front. In Chile, in 1987, he was again arrested and tortured and finally released in 1991


*Alejandro Kirk is a freelance journalist based in Santiago, Chile. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he was part of the general management of IPS as one of Roberto Savio’s closest collaborators with editorial responsibilities.