Reforming Chile’s Ministerio de Defensa Nacional

Princeton University This analysis is based in part on research conducted by Tristan Dreisbach and first published in November 2015 by Innovations for Successful Societies. The scoring assigned and the text below represents the Centre’s own work, however, and do not reflect the views of the case study authors, Innovations for Successful Societies, or Princeton University. Quotes included in the text come from interviews carried out in Chile in November 2015.

A legacy of the fallen Pinochet military dictatorship was an army with too many soldiers and too much power, one which was mistrusted by the civilians it had formerly oppressed. In the 2000s, the Chilean government prepared the way for its 2010 defence legislation, which transferred decision-making powers from armed forces to the government and the civil service. The resulting reform of the Ministerio de Defensa Nacional was radical and wide-ranging.

The challenge

After the fall of Pinochet in 1990 and the transition from military to civilian rule, there were radical changes to the government and the civil service. One focus of this reform process was Chile’s Ministry of National Defence [Ministerio de Defensa Nacional] (MDN). "Through the early 1990s, successive ministers of national defence were beginning to hire small groups of civilian advisers. In 1997, the advisory team worked with military officers and other civilians to develop the first Book of National Defence." [1]

In 2001, President Ricardo Lagos and his government turned their attention in earnest to the reform of the MDN. Their concerns were taken up by the next two presidents and their administrations.

The initiative

In February 2010, the responsibility for military planning and strategy was taken from the armed forces and given to civilians at the MDN. The change was given legal force through an enabling defence law passed by Congress. As a result of the reforms, the balance of power shifted from the armed forces to the government. “Among other things the comprehensive law restructured the defence ministry, created a new Joint Chiefs of Staff, an advisory organ for the ministry, and transferred the police (carabineros) from the [MDN] to the ministry of the interior.” [2]

Sebastián Piñera became president in March 2010, just as the reform took effect. “[He] faced the task of implementing the massive shift in expectations, norms, culture, and the chain of command. His administration restructured the ministry and hired civilians to manage tasks long controlled by military officers, and by the end of his term in 2014, the [MDN] had taken the lead in developing Chile’s defence policies.” [3]

The public impact

The reform succeeded in shifting the balance of power in defence. “For the first time in history, the country had the complete political planning of defence .... Now all policies are produced in the Undersecretariat of Defence [within the MDN]. The military needed guidance, and now the Ministry has the capacity to provide that guidance.” [4]

What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.


Public Confidence Fair

The ruling party lost power in the 2010 election to the second-placed candidate in the 2006 election, indicating that they were not overwhelmingly popular. However, the principle of reducing the power of the armed forces was widely supported by the public. Izurieta admitted that the army would not be accepted as part of democratic society ‘until questions over its past can finally be laid to rest’.”

Stakeholder Engagement Strong

The main stakeholders were the Chilean government, in particular the MDN, the armed forces and Congress.

Chile was under military rule for close on 17 years and, even after civilian government took over, the armed forces enjoyed the freedom to decide their own working and policies. The context of the reform meant that the support of armed forces personnel was crucial. Many influential members of the armed forces were prepared to forego their autonomy. "By the 2000s, even some military leaders themselves said they had too much autonomy and were ready for change. ‘There’s nothing worse than not having clear guidance from the political level,’ said Óscar Izurieta, the former army commander-in-chief." [5]

Both parties took part in the negotiations around the 2010 legislation. “‘Discussions about developing the legal language included about 10 people,’ said Felipe Illanes, a lawyer who was with the ministry and advised in the process. The deliberations involved the minister and undersecretaries, civilian advisers, and representatives of the National Defence Staff." [6]

Political Commitment Good

The political leadership under the president, Michelle Bachelet, and the defence minister made sure that the defence reform bill was passed before the term of the Bachelet government ended. The political commitment was evident in the momentum given to the legislation, and was continued by Bachelet’s successor, President Piñera.

However, there was no financial support for the newly created ministry and defence department. "Congress had not provided funding for the new institutions in the ministry." [7]


Clear Objectives Good

The objectives were to reform the MDN by transferring power from the armed forces to the civil service, and these were enshrined in the law that was enacted by the government. “It gave the [MDN] the legal and material power to actually do its job as a ministry.” [8]

Evidence Good

While framing the policy, the government studied the defence ministries of various countries such as Spain, the UK and the US, and the 2010 law was influenced by the systems in these countries.

The MDN functioned very differently from its counterparts in those countries, where defence ministries formed “critical nexuses between civilian government and the armed forces; civilians led offices responsible for assessing potential threats and developing plans to combat them; research and war-gaming led to policies that defined the military capacity the country required; and ministry officials communicated these goals to high-ranking military officers, who made sure their forces could provide the needed capabilities." [9]

Feasibility Fair

The legal feasibility of the reform was addressed by the consensual negotiations in framing and drafting the initial bill, and the passing of the bill into law by the Chilean Congress.

However, the reform did not take into consideration fiscal constraints of running the new ministry, as Izurieta was to say later. “‘Because Congress had passed the 2010 budget before it approved the law restructuring the MDN, the spending plan earmarked no specific funding for the new office ... Nothing was prepared’.” [10]


Management Good

The management of the MDN after the reforms had a healthy mix of civilian experts and people from the military to ensure that the policy considerations of the democratic government formed part of the development aspirations of the armed forces. In addition, the proposed law had provisions to make sure that the control on the military and policy formulation rests in the hands of the government.

The 2010 law gave the MDN the legal and material power to perform its governmental role. Piñera’s choice to lead the ministry and manage implementation of the defence law was Jaime Ravinet, who “had solid credentials for the post: he had served as minister of national defence from 2004 to 2006 under President Lagos, and he had submitted the defence reform bill to Congress in 2005”. [11]

Experienced figures were chosen to head two important departments:

  • "To head the new policy unit, the Undersecretariat of Defence, Piñera chose a quintessential military man: Izurieta. A recently retired general, Izurieta had served from 2006 to 2010 as the army’s commander-in- chief ..." [12]
  • “Piñera’s choice for undersecretary of the armed forces, the post that would oversee the consolidation of administrative functions, was a more conventional political appointee: Alfonso Vargas, a stalwart of his own party. Vargas, a businessman, had served 16 years in the Senate, including experience on the Senate defence committee.”

Alignment Good

The army supported the reform and has supported the government in relief works during times of natural disasters. It shows the changing role of the army in Chile in cooperating with the civilian government, and supporting the reform from its inception in the early 2000s through enabling legislation to actual implementation. “The army has tried hard to regain legitimacy over the past decade. It has seized on natural disasters, such as earthquakes, to play an active civil-defence role. It has used its field hospitals to take medical services to remote areas and help the national health service cut waiting lists. And it has sought to reduce its social isolation by such measures as sending cadets from the Santiago military academy to one of the city's universities for some of their courses.” [13]