State of siege in Chile - nuisance for some, nightmare for others
Santiago, Chile — For some Chileans, the state of siege imposed last week by military leader Augusto Pinochet is simply a nuisance. For others, it is a nightmare. The reactions to the state of siege reflect the rifts dividing the nation. While supporters of General Pinochet say harsh measures are needed to combat the reemergence of urban guerrillas, church and human rights leaders say the measures show the regime can respond to growing discontent only with force.
Within the past three days, police have arrested more than 400 people. In one massive raid last weekend, police and military personnel swarmed into a shantytown and detained 323 people whom a government spokesman described as ''subversives'' and ''habitual delinquents.'' Police found numerous caches of machineguns, automatic rifles, and explosives, he said.
But leaders of the shantytown known as Silva Henriquez in south Santiago say police arrested far more than the regime acknowledges. They also contend police brought the weapons and dynamite with them in order to stage its discovery for state television.
''It was a show,'' said Luis Molina Gomez, one of the few community leaders not arrested. ''It was a show that the government has put on under the state of siege to quiet people asking for liberty.''
If the state of siege has caused turmoil in the poorer sectors of the nation, it has barely affected the affluent areas. Under a brilliant sky Sunday, smartly dressed Chileans crowded sidewalk cafes and window-shopped in the more expensive districts near the mountains. Their only complaints centered on the midnight-to- 5 a.m. curfew that Pinochet imposed last week in part of the country, including Chile's popular seaside resorts.
As part of the state of siege, Pinochet has taken a number of steps deeply affecting many Chileans. A week ago, the regime imposed broad censorship, closed six opposition publications, raided the offices of opposition political groups, and curbed the right to meet freely. Reports swept the city over the weekend that the regime would open a second mass detention camp in the northern Atacama Desert to handle the large numbers of people it is arresting.
Pinochet announced the state of siege a week after the country was squeezed by a national protest and strike and only days after two terrorist attacks on police. In the second attack, a group of 15 extremists assaulted a police precinct in southern Santiago with machineguns and hand grenades, leaving two dead.
The government maintains the attack showed the sophistication and aggressiveness of a growing urban guerrilla movement.
But opposition politicians have maintained the regime had adequate powers to deal with terrorism before declaring the state of siege. They point to a broad antiter-rorist law that allows secret police to censor personal correspondence and detain terrorist suspects for up to 15 days in secret detention centers.
Critics of the regime say the state of siege was designed to quell the protests that have rocked Chile for 18 months, and not to deal with terrorism. The muzzling of the press allows the government to silence dissenters with impunity, opponents say.
''Arbitrary detentions, raids, and jailings have returned without the media being able to make any reference to these acts,'' said Ricardo Lagos, the head of the main opposition coalition, the Democratic Alliance.
''This was a premeditated plan to smother all social and political expression ,'' added Gabriel Valdes Subercaseaux, head of Chile's largest party, the Christian Democrats.
The government's ban on political meetings and the censorship of the news media have left the protest movement in limbo. The alliance plans further protests in spite of the state of seige, Mr. Lagos said. But without the opposition press drawing attention to a protest, support may be difficult to muster.
The state of siege comes against a backdrop of a sagging economy and what officials of the Roman Catholic Church say is a worsening human rights situation. Following a devaluation of the Chilean peso in September, inflation has risen, hitting 8 percent for October alone. One-quarter of the workforce remains jobless or on government make-work programs that pay less than $40 per month.