It appears that President Augusto Pinochet Ugarte of Chile will celebrate seven years of authoritarian rule with a new constitution guaranteeing him eight more years of power. He will at least go through the motions of obtaining popular approval with a plebiscite on Sept. 11, the anniversary of the 1973 coup that began his regime. The question is whether he and his junta will them move fast enough to satisfy domestic demands for reform and restore Chile to respectability in the international community.
Eight more years seems an inordinately long time to put off the transition to representative government. After that period the constitution is said to provide for a presidential candidate to be selected by the junta and offered to another plebiscite for approval. A year later there would be elections for a national legislative body.
Meanwhile, Chile's high economic growth rate is being bought at the price of continued repression. Last year, as hundreds of Chileans were arrested for trying to hold May Day labor rallies, General Pinochet said he would not give way to "internal or foreign pressures" for political liberalization. Now opposition elements are denouncing the proposed constitution, which was reportedly prepared in secret and rushed forward to bolster Pinochet in the face of mounting criticism.
Yet observers have found some improvement in human rights in Chile as measured in such ways as increased freedom of discussion and reduced numbers of prisoners and reports of torture. Just this week the government appeared to edge forward in protecting rights by arresting 20 police officers accused of right-wing terrorism in connection with a number of kidnappings and a fatal beating.
Progress in these directions must continue. Lapses must be overcome, like the increase in human rights violations during the first half of 1980 compared wth 1979, as reported by a private organization, the Chilean Human Rights Commission.
At the same time Chile needs to take steps on the specific matter of bringing to justice the accused Chilean murderers of former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier, who was killed with an American companion on United States soil. Chilean courts, citing thir laws of evidence, refused to extradite three former secret police officers to stand trial for the murder in the United States. Nor has the Chilean government, in the eyes of Washington, made an adequate investigation of this case of international terrorism on its own.
For this reason the US last month excluded Chile from the annual North and South american naval exercises in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The action was in line with such other US responses as voting against loans for Chile in international banks, halting credits for military sales, and letting economic aid programs come to an end.
However, US private banks and other institutions continue to do business with Chile. And President Carter has refused to break off diplomatic relations, which would be an unmistakable gesture to show that the US will not tolerate the perpetration of terrorim within its boundaries. Pressure for such a gesture may grow if a further entrenched Pinochet government remains intransigent on the Letelier affair.