SANTIAGO -The loss of more than 40 young soldiers in a snowstorm in southern Chile late last week has sparked a fierce debate on the country’s compulsory military service.
Twenty-one bodies have been found so far, and the search for the remaining 19 continued Tuesday in the foothills of the Antuco volcano, where more than 40 teenage recruits and a sergeant from the city of Los Angeles, 500 km (310 mi.) south of Santiago, were lost when they were out marching and a blizzard suddenly hit last Thursday.
“The Antuco tragedy has awakened a widespread sentiment in the country in favor of putting an end to compulsory military service,” theologian Alvaro Ramis told IPS.
Ramis is an activist with the Network of Conscientious Objectors, an umbrella organization of around a dozen religious, youth, and human rights groups advocating voluntary conscription.
The recruits had just begun their military service less than three months ago.
Not only did their officers ignore warnings of severe weather, but the young men were sent out on the training exercises with light clothing completely inadequate to cold weather conditions and snow.
The tragedy has led to a shakeup in the army, although the commander-in-chief himself, General Juan Emilio Cheyre, has received full backing from Socialist President Ricardo Lagos and his government.
Referring to calls for the removal of Cheyre, Defense Minister Jaime Ravinet said Tuesday, “We believe that these doubts about General Cheyre are absurd. On the contrary, he has demonstrated great integrity and fortitude and a capacity to sacrifice himself for his people.”
“You have seen him go five days practically without sleeping up there in the Andes, visiting Los Angeles, talking to the families. He has the government’s complete support.”
Cheyre removed the top officers of the Los Angeles regiment Colonel Roberto Mercado, Lieutenant-Colonel Luis Pineda, and Major Patricio Cereceda from their posts, and there have been reports that General Rodolfo González, head of the third army division, is about to be sacked.
Addressing Congress, Lagos praised the role Cheyre has played in fully integrating the armed forces into a democratic Chile after the 1973-1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. He also expressed solidarity with the army and the families of the victims.
The most likely candidates for the December presidential elections, as well as the leaders of the parties making up the center-left governing coalition and the rightist opposition, also spoke out on Cheyre’s behalf.
Lagos and Cheyre traveled to Los Angeles over the weekend to take part in a funeral ceremony for 13 of the victims. They were accompanied by Socialist Michelle Bachelet and Christian Democrat Soledad Alvear, the two leading presidential hopefuls from the center-left, and by Joaquín Lavín and Sebastián Piñera, the right-wing alliance’s possible candidates.
Both Alvear and Piñera said progress must be made toward making conscription voluntary.
Former foreign minister Alvear said that if she is elected president, compulsory military service would be abolished by 2007, and women’s participation in the military would be expanded, in response to the level of interest that women have expressed. She also said military pay and benefits would be improved.
Cheyre announced Sunday that the victims’ families would be paid $5,400 in life insurance and $4,900 in reparations, and that they would have the right to a monthly pension amounting to around $260.
An internal army investigation will determine the responsibility of General González and the other officers.
The nongovernmental Corporation of Citizen Rights has called for a reconsideration of compulsory military service. The group also argued that the civil justice system, and not only the military courts, should investigate the tragedy in Antuco, as well as the deaths of other recruits in recent years in Chile.
Compulsory military service in Chile “has a long history of violence,” said Ramis. “There have been many cases of unclarified deaths. Obligatory conscription provides no solution for Chile’s youth and is not in keeping with a democratic society.”
He pointed out that the deaths of three young soldiers Pedro Soto in 1996, Orlando Morales in 2002, and Raúl Aedo in 2003 have not yet been cleared up.
And just this month, César Soto was killed by a shot to his head during training exercises on May 4, Alejandro Ríos drowned in a lake on May 9, and Mauricio Riquelme was shot in the stomach and died on May 10.
The Network of Conscientious Objectors held a march Tuesday in Santiago in solidarity with the victims of the Antuco tragedy and their families.
The group has not ruled out the possibility of taking legal action in Chile and before international courts in an attempt to prevent further deaths of young men undergoing compulsory military service.
Ramis said the right-wing opposition alliance has blocked approval in Congress of changes agreed in 2000 by the Defense Ministry and civil society organizations.
In April, the Senate votes of the Independent Democratic Union and several lawmakers from the National Renovation Party both of which are right-wing forces along with those of the four designated senators who represent the armed forces obstructed the two-thirds majority needed to adopt the reform, he said.
Now a bicameral commission is debating a modification that Ramis described as “light,” which would merely allow certain young men to be excused from compulsory military service for psychological and ethical reasons.
It is mainly young people from lower-income sectors who end up doing military service in Chile, since only 20,000 (including 1,000 women) recruits a year are needed, while around 120,000 Chileans turn 18 every year.
Similar situations are seen in other Latin American countries, such as Brazil, where only 10 percent of the 3.2 million potential recruits are actually conscripted.
Brazil plans to create community service for part of the youngsters who are not recruited.
Christian Democratic Senator Sergio Páez said that in practice, 87 percent of recruits in Chile sign up voluntarily, because priority is given to those who specifically express an interest in military service when they register with the armed forces.
But organizations of conscientious objectors complain that all men over 18, including those who have not done military service, join the ranks of the military reserves and can be called up in case of armed conflict, even if they are pacifists.
The right-wing Liberty and Development Institute said last year that conscription will be truly voluntary once registration becomes voluntary as well.
According to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the only countries in Latin America were military service is not obligatory are Argentina, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, and Uruguay. Conscription has also been voluntary in practice in El Salvador since the end of the civil war, in 1992.
Nicolás Espejo, a law school professor at the private Diego Portales University, said the right of freedom of conscience is recognized by the Organization of American States as well as the United Nations, which also establishes “the right of everyone to have conscientious objections to military service as a legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.”