Progress in Argentine-Chile dispute

The winds howl incessantly. For weeks at a time, a steady drizzle bathes the barren and rocky island outcroppings and blankets the sea with a chill mist. Wind and rain bite deeply into the few shepherds and fishermen who eke out a living there.

It is one of the most forlorn regions of the world.

But Argentina and Chile have long claimed this area, centered on the Beagle Channel at the tip of South America - each eyeing its strategic importance and economic potential. The contest almost brought them to war in 1978. It could still do so.

Now, however, Vatican-drafted mediation has come up with a Solomon-like decision designed to satisfy both - with the islands of Lennox, Picton, and Nueva going to Chile and the waters, largely to Argentina. President Raul Alfonsin asked Argentines to vote on the decision - and they gave it their approval with a large referendum vote this past Sunday. The pact is scheduled to be signed this week in Rome.

''It is a very good agreement,'' exults Chilean Foreign Minister Jaime del Valle Alliende. ''Behind the agreement, there is the categorical will of two countries.'' And Argentine President Alfonsin says the mediation represented ''something very special to Argentine mothers and Chilean mothers'' whose sons might otherwise have fought a war over the Beagle Channel.

But the month-old agreement still must be ratified by the legislatures of the two nations, a process that could go on for years.

The biggest delay may be in Chile.

Chile has not had a Congress for a decade. The government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte has on other occasions substituted the military junta decisions for those normally required of a legislature. Some Chilean constitutional analysts say that under the nation's Constitution, ratification of this treaty must be carried out under civilian rule, a status that other sections of the Constitution say cannot occur until 1989.

Some Argentines remain angry about the agreement, arguing that their nation should have the islands as well as the waters in the South Atlantic.

Many Chileans, too, say the agreement would force them to give up more than Argentina has by apparently relinquishing Chile's longstanding claim to South Atlantic waters.

This drumbeat of nationalist fervor in the both countries suggests the ratification process will be stormy. Some say it may never be ratified.

But both the year-old elected Argentine government of President Alfonsin and the General Pinochet's 11-year-old military government say they support the accord wholeheartedly.

Argentina and Chile both conceded a bit in the mediation. But many analysts agree that Chile gave up the most. Since it already controlled the islands and had been granted sea territoriality beyond the islands in earlier arbitration of the issue by the Queen of England, Chile accepted a new principle in the Vatican-drafted accord.

The issue of Chile's access to the Atlantic had been the major stumbling bloc to accord. Argentina all along argued that Chile should be a Pacific power, and Argentina an Atlantic one. Chile never accepted this ''bi-ocean'' thesis. They point out that the disputed islands at the mouth of the Beagle face out onto the South Atlantic. Therefore, if it controlled these islands, it reasoned it could claim some of the South Atlantic as well. Moreover, Chilean land at the Atlantic mouth of the Straits of Magellan to the north also gave Chile a claim on South Atlantic waters.

In the treaty, however, the Atlantic as such is not mentioned. Instead the document says Argentina and Chile ''agree to call the maritime area whose boundaries have been established . . . the Southern Zone Sea.'' The treaty guarantees Chile access to those waters, but its juridical claims to the waters are, in essence, thwarted by giving the Atlantic another name.

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