Chilean opposition loses momentum in bid to oust Pinochet. Opposition disarray highlighted as strike fails to materialize

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The failure of Chile's opposition to support a general strike highlights new divisions in the opposition. The constant sting of tear gas in the air and armed patrols cracking down on protests throughout this city marked two days of resistance last week to 13 years of military rule under Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte.

At least four people were killed and more than 20 injured. Dozens of bombs blew up Friday night following the protests, and Valparaiso, the country's second largest city, was blacked out for several hours.

But the scheduled general strike failed to materialize. Opposition leaders were divided over whether to have the strike in the first place. And the public feared a strike would bring government reprisals. Those opposition leaders who supported the strike intended to build on the successful strike of early July and boost pressure on the regime.

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But in the end it was the increasingly isolated Pinochet who got a boost. In addition, Pinochet's anticommunist base of support in the public and military has been strengthened by recent discoveries of large arms caches that the government says show Soviet-bloc involvement in terrorism here.

Pinochet still shows every intention of celebrating future anniversaries at the helm of the Chilean regime.

Though the government permits no opposition public assemblies, it will hold its own rally tomorrow to launch Pinochet's campaign for another term in the presidency. (The Constitution calls for a 1989 nationwide yes-or-no vote on a single candidate selected by the military junta.)

Meanwhile, in his continued commitment to silence political opposition, Pinochet is headed for a showdown with the United States. Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams confirmed Thursday that the US will probably vote against $550 million in World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank loans for Chile next month.

The US is encouraging a democratic transition here in order to prevent growing support for the communists. But Pinochet has shown no willingness to meet any of the US criteria for change, such as talks between the government and democratic opposition, legalization of politicial parties, and an end to restrictions on freedom of the press and assembly.

Instead, for example, the opposition's almost daily attempts at public assembly -- such as singing the national anthem en masse -- are broken up by security forces with water cannons and tear gas at the slightest hint of crowd formation. And recent issues of two opposition magazines have been confiscated and publication of some future issues suspended by the government.

The rhythm of public unrest and government retaliation has reached a near constant beat here since the July strike immobilized the country, observers say.

Although energetic, the opposition remains plagued by a lack of unity in strategy for achieving the common goal of a transition to democracy. For example, the Civic Assembly -- which is made up of 18 diverse opposition groups -- was unable to gain unanimous support from its leaders for last week's national strike.

The initial call for the strike came from the communist Popular Democratic Movement. According to Rodolfo Seguel, leader of the National Workers Union, a member of the Civic Assembly, the US has encouraged centrist and rightist groups to dissociate themselves from leftist groups, which compose a large part of the Assembly. The main centrist opposition party, the Christian Democrats, did not support the strike.

A demonstration planned for Sept. 23 at the same location as tomorrow's government-sponsored rally may be the final opportunity to test the opposition's ability to muster unanimous support.

``The Assembly was the widest social coalition in Chilean history . . . . It is one of the last opportunities to gain a political say,'' says Fernando Paulsen, a Chilean journalist. He is concerned that violence would appear inevitable if the opposition cannot gain the political unity it needs to be a credible negotiator with Pinochet.

Though the right-wing and centrist opposition groups have been firmly behind a nonviolent solution, he says, the decision to move away from communist groups that promote armed resistance is dividing even these groups.

He says some in the center who support moving away from the communists, as the US would like, reason that gaining US support is more valuable than supporting the massive mobilization sought by the Assembly last week.

The effects of the arsenal discoveries also had, and will continue to have, an effect on participation in strikes.

Reaction to the arsenals within the opposition runs in two directions, says Angel Flisfisch, a political scientist at FLACSO, the Latin American School of Social Sciences. Many Chileans are skeptical and believe the finds to be exaggerated anticommunist propaganda in order to justify severe restrictions on the public.

``The arsenals reinforce the concept of war,'' he says. And would-be protesters don't want to get out on the streets if they think the government can justify violence against them, he says.

Others, who may or may not be skeptical of the arsenals, simply want to distance themselves from the communist left if it is being associated, rightly or wrongly, with terrorist activities.

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