IN September 1973, a violent military coup put an end to Chile's vaunted democracy and inaugurated Gen. Augusto Pinochet's long and brutal dictatorship. In its wake, Salvador Allende, the hemisphere's first elected Marxist president, and thousands of his supporters lost their lives. Six months ago, Chile finally restored democracy, and Patricio Aylwin became its first elected president since Mr. Allende. Mr. Aylwin's success in consolidating democracy in Chile is vital to the future of democracy in our hemisphere. The Aylwin government has placed a high priority on putting the past behind it, and has received high marks for its efforts to restore both the style and substance of civilian rule. The recent reburial of former President Allende with public honors - a ceremony at which Aylwin, an Allende adversary, spoke of ``the duty of all Chileans'' to avoid a repetition of the circumstances that led to his death - symbolized the country's efforts to lay to rest 17 years of repressive military rule.
At the same time, the discovery and disinterring of the bodies of other leftists executed in 1973 brought to the surface of Chilean politics shock, anguish, and anger at the military's brutality, along with demands for justice that the Aylwin government had hoped to avoid. Recent polls show that two-thirds of Chileans favor the trial and punishment of human rights violators. The center-left government's ambivalence over this issue was revealed in its first granting permission to an imprisoned leftist guerrilla to attend the funeral of his exhumed father and then reversing that decision at the last moment.
The army's efforts to defend the necessity of those summary executions and to remind centrist political leaders - who are now in alliance with leftist victims of the coup - that they backed that 1973 military takeover have created strains within the governing coalition and between the elected government and the armed forces.
Behind these political maneuvers over past violations of human rights lies a larger contest over power between the new civil authorities and Chile's armed forces. General Pinochet's 1980 constitution created a strong executive (on the assumption that Pinochet would be president) and a permanent tutelary role for the military. After his defeat in a 1988 plebiscite, the dictator weakened the presidency, shored up his post as army commander, and packed the Senate. So the Aylwin government, despite a decisive victory in 1989, faces a rightist majority in the Senate, is barred from cutting the armed forces budget, and cannot remove or name its commanders.
Chile's military retains thus more prerogatives than any other in the region. Still, the frontiers between civil and military authority remain vague in critical areas. The struggle to define these boundaries is behind Chile's current human rights debate.
The Aylwin government - for all its ambivalence about the human rights issue - is trying to use the discovered bodies to push those boundaries and pressure Pinochet to resign his army command. Pinochet cannot be ousted by the elected head of state, but he can be forced out by his generals. The ex-dictator has shown no signs of going quietly, however, and his ``don't tread on me'' warnings point to heightened tensions and new struggles before Chile's return to democracy can be deemed consolidated.
Added to these uncertainties is the growing impatience of Chile's poor - almost half the population - whose lot has not improved under a civilian government that used the issue of poverty in its election campaign, but has retained the economic model that created it. Unless they too share in Chile's prosperity, they will be ripe for the picking by politicians of the far right or left who are waiting in the wings. Pinochet has predicted that Chileans will want him back within four years.
Aylwin remains popular and his political honeymoon is not yet over, but on the horizon lie issues and conflicts that could sap his government's support and divide his center-left coalition. Today a cautious optimism is justified, but the auguries for the future are mixed.