Image: Riot police harass a student holding a camera during a protest
Eliseo Fernandez  /  Reuters file
Riot police harass a student holding a camera during a protest against the government to demand changes in the public state education system in Valparaiso, about 75 miles northwest of Santiago, Oct. 13. The students are demanding free and better state education, as well as for an end to profit-making in the public education system.
By Steven Bodzin Correspondent
Christian Science Monitor
updated 10/18/2011 5:56:34 PM ET 2011-10-18T21:56:34

Chile's armed forces has announced an aggressive new call for military recruits, announcing that 56,793 youngsters, all born in 1993, have to report within a month for medical and aptitude tests to see if they will be drafted.

This year's mega draft is blamed on Chile's student protests, which the military says has caused a drop in recruitment of 30 percent, Santiago newspaper El Mercurio reported.

Public high schools up and down the country have been shut by student sit-ins for the past five months. Many have gates barricaded with piles of desks and chairs. Some bear hand-painted signs calling them "self-managing schools" or mocking the president and his cabinet. It's all part of a protest demanding an end to profiteering in education. Apparently, such schools aren't hospitable for military recruitment.

The military needs to find 11,340 qualified candidates, the AP reported, citing the military's web site. The draft lottery is annual but military slots are usually filled up with volunteers. It already has over 14,000 volunteers, but only 40 percent of applicants make the cut. To reach its goal, the armed forces are calling up almost 57,000 youths, which the AP notes seems high.

Brig. Gen. Gunther Siebert, who directs Chile's military draft, also blamed the student movement in an interview published Monday in the El Mercurio newspaper, and said that 2.5 candidates are needed for every spot because many can't serve for physical or other reasons. But Chile's military also had a shortage last year, before the movement began, and at that time they called up fewer than 39,000 for the draft.

To have 2.5 candidates for each spot, the military would need to call up only 14,223 more youngsters. Instead, so many more have been told to report that Chile could have more than six candidates for each position. The Associated Press asked Chile's national draft office in writing for an explanation, as requested by its spokesman, and did not immediately receive a response.

Could the draft be punishment for the protests that have put the government on the defensive and caused presidential popularity to plummet? The draft has provoked a lot of commentary on Facebook, Twitter, and newspaper websites. But it might be a fight playing out more intensely on the Internet than on the ground.

Valparaiso should be a crash-point for such a conflict. It's the headquarters of the Chilean navy, and also home to one of the country's biggest concentrations of radical university students. Posters around the city promote violence against the government and insult the police.

But yesterday, a perfect sunny spring day, it was hard to find 18-year-olds who seemed concerned. One, who declined to give his name, said he had a medical condition that would exempt him from service, so he wasn't worried. Most people who don't want to enlist can find a way out of the draft, he says.

Israel Herrera says that while he is 18, he was born in 1992, and wouldn't get called up at this point. He was happy last year when his ID number wasn't on the list of draftees, as he wants to continue studying to be a mechanic. Students who are drafted can defer their service, but must enlist upon graduation, he says.

Getting drafted is probably a good thing, as military service can help keep a youth from getting involved in drugs and crime, says Luis Aranda, who is about to graduate from the Instituto Superior de Comercio high school. He is among those who voluntarily signed up for service.

© 2012 Christian Science Monitor


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