- The Washington Times - Monday, May 31, 2004

SANTIAGO, Chile — Heads high, they march in awkward sync as their parents look on proudly.

It’s Day One of military service for these recruits in the Chilean army. Decked out for the last time in civilian skirts and blazers, high heels clunking on the pavement, these women know it will be a year of huge change for them and for the military units they are joining.

This is only the second year that female recruits have been allowed into the Chilean army to serve as real soldiers. Women have had limited roles for the past nine years, but they have made major inroads in the past two.

One in five new officers in training is female, an impressive statistic on a continent where many countries still don’t allow women into the armed forces.

“Today, we have the same rights as our male counterparts,” said Lt. Viviana Chamorro, one of the first women to train as an officer nine years ago. “We can now use all weaponry and have no disadvantages at any level.”

This opening for women coincides with a transformation of the military.

Around the world, the Chilean military still evokes images of fear. It became infamous during the 17-year military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, and Chilean exiles have made sure that the world doesn’t forget the killings, torture and human rights abuses of that time.

Leftist governments have been trying to polish the country’s tarnished image since the end of military rule in 1990, but the push to modernize Chile’s military has intensified.

In the past year, Chilean troops embarked on peacekeeping missions to places such as Bosnia, Cyprus and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In March, Chile jumped at the chance to serve in Haiti, its first peacemaking mission — the term for Chapter 7, armed U.N. operations in which international forces impose peace, not just preserve it. Within 48 hours, Chile had 330 troops on the move in its largest foreign deployment since the 19th century.

As a result, 433 Chilean officers are serving abroad, a number that will rise higher than 700 this month. In 2002, only 33 officers were serving abroad.

This increased participation and the new types of missions have altered the way Chile trains its military personnel.

In the Andean foothills at a classroom in suburban Santiago, British officer Matthew Baker is teaching 20 police and forensic officers how to deal with nongovernmental organizations in the field. It is one of the regular classes offered by Chile’s Joint Center for Training in Peacekeeping.

About 600 personnel have been trained here since center opened in 2002. Officers from around the world come to teach Chilean military, police, lawyers and doctors topics such as ethics, negotiations, international human rights law and conceptual frameworks of the United Nations.

Contributing to U.N.-led missions is a goal behind Chile’s push to modernize its military. Chile is a rotating member of the Security Council, and the Socialist government of President Ricardo Lagos has put joint global action at the forefront of its foreign policy.

“After living through a period of isolation during the Pinochet dictatorship, Chile has inserted itself with great force into the global market and international society,” said Gabriel Gaspar, Chile’s undersecretary for war.

Mr. Gaspar says it makes sense for Chile to develop a more international concept of security because its economy has become dependent on exports.

“We’re committed to global stability, because there is nothing better for exports than secure markets,” Mr. Gaspar said. “So when we take part in peacekeeping, we are ensuring the conditions for our own development.”

This economic rationale has come in handy, helping the government justify the need for deep institutional changes to recalcitrant generals.

One of the most important steps in this military reorganization is formalizing the primacy of elected officials over military leaders. The Chilean Constitution allows for military intervention in governmental affairs, but maybe not for much longer.

In his annual Throne Speech on May 21, Mr. Lagos explained his constitutional reform bill. It seeks political autonomy from the armed forces by eliminating their four non-elected senators, securing a civilian majority on the National Security Council, and giving the president the authority to designate and dismiss the military commander in chief and other top officials.

The government has been trying to alter the constitution since 1990. But Claudio Fuentes of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, an independent think tank, says the required changes finally appear in this new legislation.

“Chances are greater than ever that this can be achieved,” Mr. Fuentes said, “because the right wants to form a government and portray itself as more democratic, and they have nothing to lose with these changes.”

Meanwhile, there is the practical example of Chilean officers learning to subordinate themselves on the ground. In the current peacekeeping mission to Cyprus, Chilean officers are embedded in an Argentine battalion. It is the first mission involving two South American countries serving together under one command.

This is remarkable because just two decades ago, the military forces of Chile and Argentina were on the verge of war.

The platoon in Cyprus also includes officers from uneasy neighbors Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil, making the mission an example of the new international cooperation for which Chile is striving. It reflects a new desire for regional integration, based on a recognition that Chile’s security depends on that of its neighbors.

“No matter how much I clean my house, if people are getting assaulted on my block, no one will come to visit me,” Mr. Gaspar said. “We need to improve our neighborhood. From there, we need to build mutual trust, as we have with Argentina in recent years. … It’s like the Franco-German partnership. … They began creating a united Europe.

“We need a united Southern Cone. Or at least an organized one,” Mr. Gaspar said.

The changes are part of a modernization process that Defense Minister Michelle Bachelet, a presidential hopeful, seeks to intensify. Her next goal is an administrative overhaul of the Defense Department, which hasn’t changed in 60 years.

Improving the military is almost a personal project for Miss Bachelet, a physician who once served as Chile’s health minister. She and Mr. Gaspar are former political exiles. Miss Bachelet’s father was an air force general who opposed Gen. Pinochet’s coup and died in detention.

But like many exiles who have returned, both Dr. Bachelet and Mr. Gaspar know that Chile’s military is different now and they want the world to know it.

Redefining Chile’s military shouldn’t be hard with all these changes, but the public has yet to be sold on the idea. There is debate about the costs and benefits of sending Chilean forces abroad and of risking their lives with little obvious return.

Still, the public debate on these decisions provoke is new for a society used to seeing the military do as it likes. That the military is mostly accepting change should help it put to rest its brutal past.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide