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Chileans look to Pope to influence country's political future. Public fervently awaits his views on regime's politics, human rights record

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 30, 1987



Dueling powers of the troubled Chilean society - the Roman Catholic Church and the ruling military regime - come face to face this week as Pope John Paul II arrives April 1 for a six-day visit. Anticipation is running high among Chileans.

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The authoritarian rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte has come under increasing pressure at home and from abroad to relax strict political controls and limit human rights violations. Papal visits to similar regimes in Haiti and the Philippines have been credited with helping to spark the eventual ousters of Jean-Claude Duvalier and Ferdinand Marcos.

Politics clearly overshadows the stated mission of the three-nation South American papal tour: to commemorate the end of a territorial dispute over the Beagle Channel, at the southern tip of the continent. The dispute, which brought Argentina and Chile to the brink of war in 1978, was resolved in 1985 after five years of Vatican mediation. The Pope will commemorate the agreement tomorrow on neutral territory in Uruguay.

``There is a fervor I've not seen in years,'' says Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean writer who teaches at Duke University. ``The despair has been such that now [Chileans] believe that the Pope will fix everything. He represents a figure from the outside who is pure and immaculate and not part of the everyday bickering and horror.''

A poll by the Santiago firm Diagnos shows that 60 percent of Chileans hope the Pope will address political issues.

Chilean opposition groups and General Pinochet's government are all maneuvering to take advantage of the visit.

The Pope and Pinochet will meet three times, and the government is expected to use the state-controlled television media to publicize the meetings. The government will also emphasize its series of recent political reforms - voter registration, legalized political parties, the legal return of some exiles - to counter any possible criticism the Pope might level at Pinochet.

Most observers do expect the Pope to criticize the regime. The Chilean church itself has been the most organized opponent of the government - Juan Francisco Cardinal Fresno Larra'in openly backs the moderate opposition. Further, the church's human rights arm, the Vicariate of Solidarity, has been the target of government harassment.

But how the Pope criticizes Pinochet will determine the kind of political influence his visit has. Chileans ``both hope and fear'' the visit will be a turning point, said US Ambassador to Chile Harry Barnes last week at the University of Miami's Institute of Interamerican Studies.

Ambassador Barnes implied that strong criticism of human rights violations by the Pope and clear support for the church's role in promoting a transition to democracy could make it harder for Pinochet to keep resisting church and opposition demands.

On the other hand, there is concern about the great masses of people expected to be drawn to the streets during the Pope's visit. Public gatherings are usually squelched by authorities before they begin. Collective frustration over this could overflow and provide an opening for leftist-inspired violence. Any violent incidents could in turn reinforce Pinochet's argument for the need for strong military rule.

Though the Chilean portion of the 13-day South American tour promises to be the most controversial, political themes are also expected to dominate the Argentine leg of the trip.

The troubled Argentine economy, perhaps the biggest problem inherited from that nation's own period of military rule (1976-83), is expected to be the backdrop for a discourse on the theme of economic justice. This will be the Pope's first public statement on the issue since the February release of a Vatican report critical of international handling of third-world debt.

``You can expect him to hit the debt hard in Argentina. On this he's clearly left-of-center and very critical of the terms of the debt [set by international bankers] and its cost to human life,'' says Brian Smith, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.