SANTIAGO, CHILE — With the prospect of Gen. Augusto Pinochet being tried soon in Spain and never returning home, Chileans are feeling freer to complete a transition from authoritarian state to democracy that even their leaders say is unfinished.
"Three months ago people were afraid to bring up human rights, for fear of looking like an extremist or because it just wasn't 'in,' " says public opinion analyst Marta Lagos. Now, with Britain's decision on Wednesday to extradite Mr. Pinochet on charges including torture and terrorism, "people know it's an issue that is well-viewed outside the country," she adds.
It's perhaps the only issue that could deliver a big enough majority in December 1999's presidential elections to set off reform of Pinochet's 1980 constitution, Ms. Lagos says.
The news of the former dictator's continued detention delighted some Chileans and deeply disappointed others. For some, the lingering aura of Pinochet's 17-year rule has been one of fear; for others, one of reverence.
"Pinochet has been a bit like the fearsome, ever-present dictator who never dies, but this situation is dissipating the fear" of that looming force, says political analyst Ral Sohr.
The return of human rights to Chile's national agenda is one result of more than a month of looking back at a regime that is respected for restoring order after a chaotic Marxist experiment but reviled for horrific excesses.
That could open the door to a deeper reexamination of the 1973 coup against President Salvador Allende and subsequent years of battling between the Pinochet regime and leftist subversives that left more than 3,000 dead and disappeared, according to official findings.
The current Pinochet crisis began Oct. 16 when the retired commander of the Chilean Armed Forces was placed under arrest in a London clinic on a Spanish judge's request. It has not led to the acts of violence or political instability that some had feared.
"We have an imperfect democracy, it is incomplete, but it is sufficiently solid to resist this crisis," says Francisco Rojas Aravena, director of the Latin American Social Sciences Faculty in Santiago.
"People took their position on Pinochet on Oct. 5, 1988," says Ms. Lagos, the public-opinion analyst, referring to the date of a referendum that determined if Pinochet would remain president or leave office after multiparty elections. "There hasn't been much change since," she adds. Pinochet lost that vote, 54 to 43.
A NATIONAL survey published last week showed 71 percent of Chileans stating they and their families were not affected by Pinochet's detention. The survey - by the Santiago Market Opinion Research International (MORI) office that Lagos manages - also found that about two-thirds of Chileans believe Pinochet is personally guilty of crimes committed under his regime, with a somewhat smaller percentage saying he should be tried for them.
"What this means is that a strong minority will defend Pinochet to the fullest," says Lagos. And it is "not an insignificant minority," she adds, because it includes the country's "elite" - from business leaders and media opinionmakers to the military - that benefited most from the Pinochet regime. "There is monolithic support [for Pinochet] from those who own the capital in this country," says Lagos.
The fact that political instability is not in the ruling elite's economic interest helps explain why neither the military nor any other Pinochet advocates have promoted acts that could be seen internationally as destabilizing.
"Chile depends on foreign investment, and 40 percent of the economy is exports," says Mr. Sohr, the political analyst. "It would be suicidal for anyone to foment instability."
Pinochet supporters counter that it is not just the wealthy but average Chileans who are grateful to his regime. "His was a military government that saved Chile from a catastrophe, and many Chileans remember that," says Jorge Ballerino, a retired general who was Pinochet's minister of the presidency from 1987 to 1990. "If [Pinochet] acted it's because the chaos of the Allende government was actually leading to hunger, militias were forming, and millions of Chileans were begging for the Army to intervene." He also cites another issue - national sovereignty - that has struck a chord with many Chileans and that could affect Chile's relations with the rest of the world for years to come.
"This [British] decision is an affront to our sovereignty, it leaves a small but independent country with the feeling of being walked on by an arrogant but imperfect world power," says Ballerino. That view is echoed on Santiago streets.
"We are not a colony, but that is how Chileans of all political stripes see how we are being treated by countries that were not capable of addressing their own rights abuses," says Ana Maria Matta, a Santiago midwife.
"Why didn't Spain try Franco, why hasn't England looked into its own abuses in its war in [Northern] Ireland?"
Chile wants to be viewed as a modern country, but "we can't be a modern country unless we succeed in the area of human rights," says Rojas, the social scientist. "The polarization over the Pinochet crisis shows we can't achieve a reconciliation over the past, but we can succeed in a common future vision on human rights."