Chileans' choice

A majority of the once proudly democratic Chileans have apparently come to care more about their country's economic growth than about their political freedoms. This sad conclusion cannot be drawn on the basis of the 2-to-1 victory that Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte's military government received in the national plebiscite last week which respected former President Frei called a "burlesque." Rather it is from on-the-spot observation that this impression derives. Most Chileans seem ready to accept General Pinochet's dictatorial rule in light of economic progress.

That dictatorial rule, of couse, is the disturbing factor in the vote Sept. 11, the seventh anniversary of the military overthrow of the legitimate, albeit chaotic government of Salvador Allende Gossens in 1973. Chileans in those seven years have lost their traditional freedoms. And there is little likelihood that they will regain at anytime in the near future. This in a nation once regarded as the most democratic in all of Latin America.

Indeed, if last week's vote is to interpreted seriously at all, it should be noted that the vote in effect for Pinochet was lower than the 75 percent backing him in the official results of the plebiscite in 1978. However, this time the vote was not specifically on his regime but on a constitution that would keep him in power. It could be that some Chileans who support Pinochet nevertheless retain enough concern for democracy to resist voting for a constitution enshrining lack of democracy.

Still many Chileans would agree with General Pinochet who, after the vote, told the United States: "Leave us alone." That message to Washington is perhaps difficult for the Carter administration to accept. But Chilean observers say that many voters in Chile were angry with continuing criticism of their country by the US and by Washington's various economic sanctions in the wake of Chilehs refusal to cooperate in the prosecution of Chileans indicted for murder on US soil.

The US State Department was hardly going too far when a spokesman said of the plebiscite: "We regret the lack of equitable access for opponents to the means of communications and the repeated government intimidation of opponents. We do not believe that the plebiscite in its substance or process gave meaningful choices to the voters. We continue to hope that the Chilean people will be able to enjoy full democracy soon."

However, change will depend on Chileans themselves reaching the point of demanding a return to democracy. This does not mean that world opinion and international legal bodies should ignore such matters as Amnesty International's report last week of a recent sharp increase in political arrests and systematic torture of suspects of Chile. It certainly does not mean US or any other efforts to manipulate Chilean democratic processes as in the past. It does mean refraining from fruitlessly inflaming the situation in Chile with self-righteous rhetoric.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.