Chileans protest government - but many fear to take to streets

Opponents of Chile's military government hope this year's second day of national protest - to be held today - will speed their nation's return to democracy.

But it is becoming clear that there may be a limit, for now, to the length to which Chileans will go to actively demonstrate against the government.

While many unemployed or marginally employed Chileans - who make up about 30 percent of work force - are likely to march against the government, businessmen and even many union members may not join because economic pressures and fears of government reprisals seem too great, many political analysts say.

For the sector of the populace that is reluctant to be seen protesting in the streets, participation may be limited to the cacerola , the banging of pots and pans at an appointed hour.

But factors other than economic conditions and the power of the government to control unions may play a role in what happens today and on any future days of protest.

The political opposition in Chile is fragmented. More than a dozen political factions compete for the allegiance of this nation's roughly 11 million residents.

Rodolfo Seguel, popular leader of the National Workers' Command, says that if today's protest does not spur changes in the government, the opposition will mount a day-long national strike. Mr. Seguel, who organized today's rally, says a call for a strike to ''paralyze'' the country would be made by the end of July.

But opposition groups are divided on the need for, and timing of, a strike.

''If you've got all these leaders that are poles apart, how are you going to organize a national strike?'' asks a Western diplomat here. And a strike would only seriously pressure the government if truck drivers, copper workers, and the nation's shopkeepers - some of whom now are hesitant about demonstrating - join in, a number of analysts and Western diplomats say. Divisions among the opposition could impair the effectiveness of any strike call, they say.

And while the opposition appears to have the support of a majority of Chileans, there is still a substantial segment of the population that supports military leader Augusto Pinochet because they think he brought an era of stability after the 1973 overthrow of the government of Salvador Allende Gossens.

Although vilified in the Western press as the bully boy of Latin America, Pinochet has some level of support from nearly 40 percent of Chileans, according to a survey in the leading opposition magazine, Hoy. But in an early April public opinion poll, 51 percent of Chileans said they believed Pinochet should leave office immediately.

Meanwhile, the government has another wildfire to douse. Criticism is mounting over Pinochet's reported purchase of government land for his private estate at a greatly reduced price.

The editor of the magazine that originally sought to print information about the land transaction was jailed briefly last month, and the magazine was taken off the newsstands.

But clandestine copies of the article have floated around Santiago, and a spokesman for Pinochet was forced to respond last week after 24 opposition leaders appealed to the courts to look into the matter. This week Chile's Appeals Court appointed one of its judges to investigate allegations that the purchase was improper.

A government spokesman has said the land value went down after buildings on the property were razed. This explanation is not given much credence by critics.

''This has stained them,'' labor leader Seguel said of the controversy over the estate.

In the run-up to today's protest, a wave of bombings has shaken Chile. More than 30 bombs have exploded within the past two weeks, including a blast in a Santiago subway station April 29 that injured more than 25 people.

Although the violence may illustrate that leftists are willing to go to any lengths to oppose the government, the Rev. Pierre Dubois thinks much of the bloodshed is brought on by police.

Fr. Dubois, who in March threw himself in the path of police buses to block armed officers from entering his parish, says police often show up in massive numbers in poor neighborhoods. They fire rubber bullets and launch tear-gas bombs with little provocation, he says.

He hopes the police will let the residents of the poor poblaciones - the slums on Santiago's periphery - protest today without antagonizing them.

''If the police don't come and don't enter the poblacion, nothing will happen ,'' he says. ''There will be meetings, demonstrations. But nothing more.''

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