Pinochet lays constitutional trump card

Chile's autocratic, seven- year-old military rule has been institutionalized -- by a 2-to-1 margin of Chilean voters. While the approval was expected -- as was the size of the margin -- the vote calls for reassessments of how the United States and other critics deal with the stern military leadership in Santiago.

The vote Sept. 11 approved a new Constitution for Chile that allows the military to stay in power through 1997. There could be no mistaking the joy that Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte expressed when the vote results were announced.

"Leave us alone," he told the Carter administration in a victory statement. "Leave us alone to work because we are taking care of our things and thinking that we are doing the right thing."

The Carter administration has condemned the Pinochet government's repressive actions and attendant torture of political prisoners, repeatedly calling on the military to set up a timetable for an early return to traditional democratic rule. But General Pinochet now can point to 67 percent approval of his position by Chilean voters.

Washington's reaction to this latest event in Chile has been guarded. The State Department called the new Constitution a far cry from the document it replaces, which was regarded as one Latin America. Other US critics have been more harsh. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy took sharp issue with the plebiscite, calling it a "farce."

The senator noted there was "no independent check on who votes or who counts the vote. . . ." All this fits into criticism by former President Eduardo Frei Montalva, a respected statesmen, who called the plebiscite "a burlesque." But even Frei associates admit (lamentably," one said) that the majority of Chileans probably did favor continuation of military rule.

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