Chile's changing opposition. New coalition's successful strike renews doubts over Pinochet's long-term prospects

A surprisingly successful general strike here July 2-3 has renewed doubts about Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte's plans to institutionalize military rule and underscored a major change in the opposition leadership. The two-day action was called by the Civic Assembly, a coalition of 18 guilds, unions, and student groups which has seized the opposition initiative from Chile's fractious political parties. Chilean opposition parties have been unable to overcome historical differences to mobilize anti-Pinochet sentiment.

The Civic Assembly issued a list of demands two months ago that set forth measures it wanted the government to take to move the country toward democracy. The strike brought the capital city to a standstill as public transportation workers cut service by half. Shops closed early and factory absenteeism ran as high as 50 percent. Six persons died in strike-related violence, and at least 50 more were injured. More than 1,000 were arrested, two-thirds of them in the outlying provinces.

Opposition leaders hope such pressure will force General Pinochet to deviate from his plans to maintain his government into the next decade and beyond. The military's rewritten Constitution provides for a presidential plebiscite in 1989 in which the country will vote yes or no to a single candidate chosen by the junta.

Most analysts believe Pinochet intends to be the nominee for a new, eight-year term.

Civilian politicians opposed to the continuation of Pinochet's rule want to see the Constitution altered to provide for more open elections. But they have been unable to agree on a specific formula, despite active mediation efforts by Santiago's Roman Catholic archbishop, Juan Francisco Fresno.

The opposition wants to drive a wedge between Pinochet and other leaders of the Chilean armed forces.

Many military chiefs are believed to be worried about possible long-term damage to the image and power of the military, if the regime is prolonged. The officer corps is uneasy about continued use of troops to control antigovernment protest. They worry that popular anger -- directed until now against police -- may turn instead against the armed forces.

Witnesses accused soldiers of setting two young demonstrators afire on the first day of last week's strike. One victim's mother, Veronica Denegri, a Chilean political exile, flew in from the US under the protection of the US Embassy when told her son may not survive his injuries.

The case could severely tarnish the Army's image.

Meanwhile, political party spokesmen have been virtually silent about the strike and its consequences, a measure of the extent to which the initiative has passed out of their hands.

Some observers even attribute the strike's success to the low profile taken by politicians, who are seen as sectarian and ambitious. The appearance of a new crop of opposition leaders, less identified with party labels, may be the most significant long-term result of the July shutdown.

Chile's unlikely new opposition figurehead, medical association president Juan Luis Gonz'alez, went into hiding over the weekend after he and 16 other leaders were subpoenaed under antisubversion laws. Dr. Gonzalez is president of the Civic Assembly.

Organizers declared the strike a ``gargantuan success'' before disappearing to avoid arrest. Under security laws, they can be held responsible not only for the strike itself but also for any consequences resulting from it.

Authorities initially appeared to be ignoring the strike threat as inconsequential. But once its impact became evident, Santiago's military governor banned four opposition radio stations from broadcasting any news and ordered the strike leaders arrested.

Pinochet said the country's dilemma boiled down to a choice between ``order or chaos.''

Strike leaders would not confirm rumors that a new action would be called before the end of the month. But they conceded a major showdown is planned for September, the 13th anniversary of Pinochet's military rule.

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