Chile's Pinochet keeps firm grip on power, despite riots

Last week, Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte braced for two days of widespread protests against his military rule in Chile. Today, he toasts his 11 years as Chile's leader.

The durable Latin ruler - a virtual dictator - may feel he has a lot to celebrate. For 16 months, massive protests have threatened his power. Yet he remains firmly in control of this pencil-thin nation on Latin America's western flank.

At this time a year ago, General Pinochet's position seemed less secure. Protests in five consecutive months had deeply shaken his regime. He agreed to enter talks with opposition parties that were calling for his resignation. And in his annual address to the nation last September, Pinochet spoke of advancing the date for electing a congress. The Constitution calls for elections in 1989.

Today, Pinochet goes on national television again for his annual address, marking the 1973 coup that overthrew Marxist leader Salvador Allende Gossens.

But observers say the political ''opening'' of a year ago seems all but closed in Chile. The military regime's talks with the opposition stalled last year, and Pinochet is now taking a harder line on setting up an elected congress. He has threatened to jail organizers of last week's protests, many of whom are his key political opponents. And he has proclaimed that his nation is not ready for democracy.

The disunity of Chile's political opposition underlies at least some of the regime's continued strength over the past year. More than 40 groups and parties trying to enlist the allegiance of this country's 11.5 million people.

But Pinochet's silencing of dissent is also a factor in his ability to stay in control. The past month is a case in point. In August, Pinochet repeatedly threatened his opponents with ''another Sept. 11,'' referring to the bloody coup that brought him to power. Before last week's protests, the ruling junta banned the two most popular opposition radio stations from broadcasting news. It also filed charges against four opposition news magazines for breaking state security laws.

As the protests got under way, the regime exhibited even more raw power. In the shantytown of Pudahuel, police rode through streets in small tanks equipped with machine guns. Elsewhere in the city, buses toting helmeted riot police patrolled constantly, lobbing tear gas canisters and clubbing demonstrators. Reporters said they saw police shoot randomly down streets.

At noon on Sept. 4, helmeted riot police using dogs and clubs broke up a gathering of protesters, leaving dozens injured.

The two days of protest left eight dead, including a French priest, Andre Jarlan, who was shot in his parish house while reading the Bible. The death of the priest caused outcries from the Vatican, and the Chilean Roman Catholic Church has asked for an inquiry to see if police shot the bullet that killed Father Jarlan.

Organizers acknowledge that support for last week's protests was less than in the past, but they say the public was afraid of heightened police repression. They point out, nonetheless, that the protests spread even to the wealthier sectors of Santiago.

Human-rights observers maintain the regime was using undue repression last week. Police acted with ''with fury and with hate,'' says Carlos Lopez, a lawyer with the Chilean Commission for Human Rights.

The regime contends it was trying to maintain order in a society where most Chileans support Pinochet and the few who back the protests are extremists seeking to create chaos and to return the nation to Marxism.

Opposition politicians say it is the regime that is preventing a return to normal life. The increasing show of force by the police is a sign ''the government is weaker now'' and that it fears signs of discontent, says Christian Democratic leader Gabriel Valdes Subercaseaux.

The crackdown by police is creating ''tension to such a magnitude that there is going to be an explosion unless the government makes a quick exit,'' contends Mario Sharpe, the head of the opposition Democratic Alliance.

Pinochet must also cope with the increasingly vocal Chilean Roman Catholic Church and the sagging economy. A quarter of the work force is unemployed.

Even with those heavy pressures, last week's protests did not bring the tangible changes that protests produced in 1983 - no Cabinet shuffles or stronger efforts to reduce unemployment.

But last Friday the Alliance said: ''We will continue protesting because it is the only form of expression of the people and it is the only language to which the government must listen.''

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