With Firm Grip on Power, Chile's Strong Man Opens a Few Doors

Article excerpt

Almost four years after public protests first broke out against the rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, Chile's strong man still seems confident he can stage manage a slow, deliberate transition to a ''protected democracy.'' The regime has eased some aspects of military rule and opened up a narrow political space by legalizing political party activity for the first time since the military takeover of 1973. These liberalizing steps have been accompanied by other hardline actions. But they nonetheless may help boost the government's international image as well as pave the way for the visit of Pope John Paul II scheduled for April.

The four-man governing junta approved on Jan. 15 a political parties law that permits the formation of all parties except Marxist groups, which are permanently banned under the controversial 1980 Constitution. The law defines rigid rules for party organization and functioning, and any failure to observe the rules could result in suspension of party leaders or dissolution of the party. Though officially banned, Chile's parties have been operating in a hazy limbo of semi-tolerated illegality in recent years, but they have been unable to call public meetings or have access to the media. Non- Marxist politicians will now have a bit more room to operate and disseminate their ideas. But they will face enormous pressure to direct their activities toward the congressional elections scheduled for 1990, and not toward the 1989 plebiscite, in which Pinochet clearly intends to be the single candidate and to secure another eight years as President. Pinochet insists there will be no fundamental changes in the plebiscite plan and shows little nervousness over the possibility of losing. ''Sure, I'm tied to power, it's true. Write it down!'' he told an interviewer jovially in a year-end chat. Some other aspects of military rule have been eased in recent weeks, partly in anticipation of the papal visit. The four-month-old state of siege was lifted Jan. 5, enabling opposition magazines to reappear in newsstands and restoring some freedom of assembly rights. And Pinochet recently announced that many of the 3,500 Chileans and their families exiled overseas would be allowed back into the country. An initial list of 227 approved names has been issued, and officials say they are examining another list of 500 exiles. The regime's gesture on exiles suggests the military is unsure of the consequences of the papal visit and may be looking for ways to improve relations with the clerics, who have been highly critical of the system of exile. …