President Garcia silences army chief in diplomatic spat with Chile

Peru’s President Alan Garcia has asked his country’s army chief, Gen. Edwin Donayre, to remain silent in a diplomatic spat with Chile, triggered by a YouTube video of the general making anti-Chilean comments during a private cocktail party — and then reignited when he later reneged on his apology.

“In spite of news brought to us by newspapers, and the ever-present scandals and declarations, in Peru we’re always willing to comment anything, without knowing that silence is the best option,” said García in reference to Donayre.

Last week, an amateur-quality video emerged of Donayre at a small, private gathering, making a jingoistic toast at to remove Chileans from Peru “in a box, or if there aren’t sufficient boxes available, then in plastic bags.” In the video, he is seen surrounded by other uniformed officers, their wives, and several people in civilian dress.

Though Donayre apologized for his comments, he later said that they had been taken out of context and had been “the object of perverse, malicious and tendentious manipulation.”

His comments, said Donayre during a passionate speech given in Ica over the weekend, “only express the feelings of any soldier who loves his country.”

Donayre said he regretted nothing, adding fuel to the fire.

“Why doesn’t anyone react when one of our brothers is humiliated or when a well-known airline denigrates Peru in a video?” Donayre asked a crowd of 400 gathered residents.

Donayre was referring to 2005, when LAN, Chile’s largest airline, was lambasted in Peru for showing an in-flight video depicting Peru’s capital, Lima, as an enormous dump, home to vagrants urinating in streets littered by garbage. The video caused a scandal in Peru, and Congress even hauled in Emilio Rodriguez-Larraín, president of LAN’s Peruvian subsidiary, to explain the incident.

LAN apologized in full-page ads and fired those responsible for buying the video, apparently sight unseen, from a Californian company, but Chile’s then Foreign Affairs minister, Ignacio Walker Prieto, exacerbated tensions by accusing Peru of making a tempest in a teapot.

Cabinet Chief Yehude Simon echoed García’s comments, and said that the best remedy calls for Donayre to keep mum.

“(Donayre’s statements are) deplorable, and I would prefer that the minister of Foreign Affairs or the President commented on them,” said Simon. “But I, personally, think they are very regrettable. Donayre is not helping.”

Donayre’s comments were made in February, at the height of the maritime border dispute with Chile that prompted Peru to seek arbitration from the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Peru began proceedings against Chile over the dispute last January. According to the ICJ, the dispute is related to “the delimitation of the boundary between the maritime zones of the two States in the Pacific Ocean” and the recognition of “a maritime zone lying within 200 nautical miles of Peru’s coast.”

The video, posted on YouTube, was placed on several blogs this week as well as on several Peruvian newspaper Web sites.

Despite major investments in Peru by Chilean businesses, the relationship between the two nations has been marked by a historic rivalry dating back to the War of the Pacific (1879-1881), when Peru lost territory on its south coast. The border issue flares up seasonally, many Peruvians harbor a deep suspicion of Chilean intentions, and the Peruvian military is acutely sensitive to any upgrading of Chilean military materiel.

Last Tuesday, Garcia telephoned President Bachelet to offer his apologies and inform her that the government condemned and rejected the general’s unfortunate and reprehensible statements.

Though Bachelet initially said she was satisfied with the apology, Donayre’s further comments and reneged apology prompted Chilean Foreign Affairs minister Alejandro Foxley to condition the diplomatic incident’s end to Donayre’s immediate destitution.

Senator Hernán Larraín, a member of the Chilean Senate’s Foreign Affairs Commission, has even accused García of being an accomplice to Donayre if he doesn’t sack him.

“The consequences are worsening,” said Larraín, “because the Peruvian President’s weakness is not only toward Gen. Donayre, but also reflects his incapacity to (adequately) resolve the offense of his people toward another.”

Donayre is scheduled to step down December 5, said García. “And if Peru is a friend and respects all countries, it doesn’t take orders or (accept) pressure from outsiders.”

Donayre has been the subject of an investigation in recent months by the state attorney’s office for ordering excessive quantities of gasoline at his earlier posts in Arequipa and Ayacucho. Some 46 army officers have been called as witnesses in the investigation. He has also been criticized for recent promotions within the army.

Donayre is not yet due for retirement, but the investigations into the gasoline case had removed any chance of him becoming the head of chiefs of staff of the three armed forces. The current diplomatic spat will have closed any other doors that might have remained open.

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