WHILE the Latin American spotlight has swung this way and that over the past year, almost out of view Chile has quietly stumbled along for another year under the authoritarian but shaky rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. In a coup 12 years ago this month he seized power from President Salvador Allende Gossens. The situation in Chile today is much the same as a year ago: Inflation and foreign debt are up, employment and the economy are down. Much of the Chilean public has little use for General Pinochet, but the disorganized opposition still can neither unite nor produce an attractive candidate: If it could do the latter, Pinochet's rule would be in jeopardy.
One thing that upsets many Chileans is that it is even more difficult today than a year or two ago for them to scrape out a living. In addition, they continue to be turned off by the regime's resistance toward any loosening of the reins of control. In Brazil and, ultimately, in Argentina, military rulers in recent years loosened their authoritarian grasp of government, preparing the way for a return toward democratic rule. That has not happened in Chile, nor is there any indication that Pinochet w ill retreat an inch.
In 1989, according to a constitutional change Pinochet had enacted, the Chilean people will decide by plebiscite whether to hold national elections or to give him another eight years of authoritarian rule. Many Chileans would like a quicker return to democracy.
Two years ago Chile seethed with public opposition to the Pinochet regime: Mass demonstrations that often turned violent demanded an earlier return to democracy. Pinochet was intransigent, and he reacted with force.
By last August the public protests had disappeared, as Chileans felt continued demonstrations were fruitless. Pinochet then ruled what appeared to be a supine nation.
Today the streets of Santiago remain quiet: The demonstrations are a memory. But below the surface, stirrings for democracy are beginning again, in quite different form. Now it is within the judicial system, as courageous judges are charging several police officers with torture and other crimes of violence against opposition liberals, including human rights activists.
That is an important step in what should be the beginning of the restoration of elementary human rights to all Chileans. Similarly, the Pinochet regime should restore political rights to opposition parties and begin to prepare the nation for a return to more-democratic rule. And the Reagan administration should take an arm's-length position toward Chile which maintains a businesslike relationship and steadily pressures for increased liberalization.
Concerns that the Pinochet regime might ultimately be succeeded by a leftist government are realistic. Yet they should not obscure the requirement for the authoritarian government ultimately to cede control to the citizenry. The longer Pinochet refuses to move toward meeting the human rights aspirations of his people, the more he risks strengthening the appeal of the left and building up explosive pressure for change, as well.