- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2006

SANTIAGO, Chile — The Peruvian presidential election tomorrow, which threatens to put another South American populist in power, is attracting attention and provoking concern in neighboring Chile.

The continuing lead in polls of leftist and former military rebel Ollanta Humala, who observers fear is cast from the same mold as Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, is the reason for the angst.

A University of Lima nationwide poll released yesterday showed Mr. Humala, who is campaigning to restrict foreign investment in Peru, had 29.2 percent of voter support and Lourdes Flores, a pro-business conservative, had 25.6 percent. While former President Alan Garcia, of the center-left, trailed with 21.9 percent.

Mr. Humala, a 43-year-old retired army colonel, has recently adapted a more strident posture in a campaign already noted for its strongly nationalistic and militaristic tone. A victory by Mr. Humala would likely exacerbate the already cool relations between Chile and Peru.

An ongoing point of contention is a dispute over the maritime boundary between the two countries, which both have large and economically important fishing industries. Chile is resolved to defend the current boundary, while Peru wants to reclaim fishing waters lost when a treaty was signed in the 1950s.

Should Mr. Humala triumph in the election’s first or second round — a majority win tomorrow would forgo the need for a runoff later in the year — there are concerns he might forge an alliance with the new leftist president of Bolivia, Evo Morales. The two nations lost land — Bolivia lost its access to the sea — when Chile won the War of the Pacific in the 1870s. The conflict’s outcome continues to provoke pride in Chile. The loss serves as a convenient way to rally Peruvians around the flag. Mr. Humala, who campaigns against the “fascist dictatorship of the economically powerful” has openly pined about the need to refight the war.

Another factor in the rise of tensions is Chile’s ambitious program to modernize its armed forces. Chilean law provides a constant flow of cash from the profits of exported copper to purchase military equipment. The guaranteed minimum annual amount of $240 million has mushroomed to half a billion dollars in recent years as copper profits have soared. The funds have allowed Chile to make recent acquisitions that include 18 U.S. F-16 fighters, two state-of-the-art diesel submarines, 118 German Leopard II tanks and four missile frigates from Holland. On paper, the Peruvian armed forces are stronger in men and weapons, but the quality of the troops is suspect and the equipment is mostly obsolete and poorly maintained 1970s vintage weaponry from the former Soviet Union.

“Peace is never guaranteed” is how new Chilean Defense Minister Vivianne Blanlot responded this week to a question in an interview about the country’s need for such technologically advanced firepower.

A key to the military superiority of Chile in the region is provided by the current example of a U.S. offer to make available to Peru, Chile, Argentina and Brazil soon-to-be decommissioned naval patrol planes.

“If Chile and Peru both get 25, a year from now Chile would still have 25 in the air, but in Peru, 20 or so would likely be sitting on the runway, out of service due to poor maintenance,” said a foreign diplomat stationed in Santiago who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

So, as the Peruvian election drama unfolds and Chileans wait to see who will prevail, the mood in Santiago is calm.

Old timers recall when a dispute with Argentina over the Beagle Channel brought the two countries to the edge of war in the early 1980s.

“We had air raid drills in the city, but no one was really that much concerned. We knew our armed forces would prevail if it came to that,” said a longtime Santiago resident.

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