Rising mass protests in Chile are a reminder that Central America is not the only region of the Western Hemisphere where people yearn for social and political reform. President Pinochet's grip remains strong but his military rule is now under increasing challenge. Significantly, the opposition comes not just from one segment of society but from the nation at large - the political parties, labor unions, farmer groups, students, the Roman Catholic Church, business leaders.
It is clear that the worsening economic situation in Chile accounts in large measure for the gathering popular restiveness. Pinochet seized power ostensibly to clean up the economic mess left by Salvador Allende Gossens and his Marxist government. Yet, ironically, the country once again is in a parlous state. The President has tried to wring out the inflation from the economy but, because of world recession and the decline in commodity prices, Chile has fallen on hard times. Unemployment stands at more than 20 percent, inflation is running at a high 30 percent,and real income has dropped 27 percent in the past two years. In the face of such conditions, even some of the government's supporters are calling on President Pinochet to speed up the return to democratic government.
Such a move would hold out the greatest hope for the Chilean people. The nation did, after all, have a period of Christian Democratic rule - the first in Latin America. In the 1960s President Frei actually embarked on a far-reaching program of social and economic reform. But, as is often the case in a political democracy, the pace of change was slow and the country finally swung left, electing a Marxist to power in 1970. It was the disastrous economic results of that Marxist government that ultimately led to a military coup d'etat and heavy-handed internal suppression.
The question is whether Chile can somehow recover a middle, centrist path that swings neither to the far left or the far right and avoids political polarization. Its historical experience has shown that both extremes have mismanaged the country. Neither right nor left has been able to carry out that social and economic revolution needed to narrow the gap between rich and poor and improve the lives of all. If Chileans could now restore a democracy, perhaps they would have learned the historical lesson that reform requires patience - and all political forces working together in a spirit of compromise.
General Pinochet could serve his country best by moving up the timetable for a return to civilian rule, now scheduled for 1989. Unfortunately, he is not inclined to do so and is in fact cracking down on dissident elements, resorting heavily to the use of torture. But he will have to face the consequences of planning to hold power by force for another six years and governing through a suppression of human rights. He may blame Moscow and ''international communism'' for exploiting discontent in Chile. But, judging from the nationwide demonstrations, that is not an argument which sways the people of Chile.