The United States has dealt a damaging blow to the regime of Maj. Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. The Reagan administration's public denunciation of Chile's human rights record raises questions about the long-term prospects for military dictatorship in this country.
Even the most skeptical Chilean finds it difficult to keep saying that torture, for example, does not occur in this country. This can only deepen an already broad national consensus that political change is overdue.
The US last week introduced a resolution to a United Nations panel which condemned the authoritarian government of General Pinochet for failing to protect basic human rights -- this came after the US has abstained or voted against similar denunciations for more than a decade.
But even many of Pinochet's opponents suspect geopolitical considerations were a primary factor behind the US move, particularly the ideological war against Nicaragua's Sandinista leadership.
Chilean Foreign Minister Jaime del Valle Alliende responded to the US action by saying that Chile would not be cornered by its ``enemies'' and would continue to ``do things our own way.''
Although torture, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, banishment, and violence against dissenters continue to create a grim human rights climate here, the situation has not changed substantially over recent years. What is new is the Reagan administration's decision to abandon ``silent diplomacy'' in handling Pinochet.
The critical resolution, presented by the US March 12 to the UN Committee on Human Rights in Geneva and adopted by a vote of 43 to 0 a day later, followed an unprecedented fact-finding visit by the UN's Special Rapporteur Fernando Volio of Costa Rica.
Pinochet had never let UN human rights inspectors into the country before, but Mr. Volio's reputation as a conservative may have encouraged the Chilean president to expect a more sympathetic report.
Instead, Volio's report was characterized as ``the toughest ever'' by Vice-President Maximo Pacheco of the Chilean Human Rights Commission.
The resolution blames Chilean authorities and the judicial system for failing to prevent abuses or punishing those responsible. It also calls for an end to forced exile and the practice of banishing political opponents to remote parts of the country.
Normally, human rights denunciations -- of which there have been dozens since Pinochet led the 1973 coup against Marxist President Salvador Allende Gossens -- are dismissed by government spokesmen as slanderous campaigns led by Soviet allies or sworn enemies such as Mexico (which has never recognized the Chilean regime).
The Reagan administration's sudden endorsement of such a resolution has demolished Pinochet's standard reply, since the US now stands firmly among the regime's critics.
A new constitution, written in 1980 under the Armed Forces' direction and ratified in a disputed plebescite, established a preliminary, nine-year presidency for Pinochet. This term is to culminate in a nationwide, yes-or-no vote in 1989 on whether the military candidate (presumably Pinochet) should remain in office for another eight years, until 1997.
Left-wing parties are outlawed in Chile, and the military's high command retains an effective veto over political decisions of any substance.
Government officials point to this process as Chile's ``institutionalization'' plan which will ease the country into a ``protected democracy.'' Pinochet has vowed repeatedly not to alter any element of this plan.
But opponents say the plan will have to be changed or scrapped, and even the military's conservative civilian allies fear the new system will lack the credibility needed to create a stable, post-Pinochet era.
Conservatives fear a more open system might pave the way for a new electoral victory by the Communist Party-led left, still very strong in Chile despite years of repression. The five-party ``Popular Unity'' coalition achieved such an upset in 1970 and lasted for three years before the Pinochet coup.
Pinochet exploits the fears of a repetition of that turbulent period among middle-class Chileans, many of whom retain sympathy, if not enthusiasm, for military rule.
After the recent explosions of mass discontent in Haiti and the Philippines, Reagan's policymakers may have decided that further polarization in Chile is counterproductive to long-term US interests. While economic ties remain firm, political relations may become strained as the US pushes for reforms, including:
Relaxing of the state of emergency still in force from the 1973 coup (it was lifted briefly for a few months in 1983).
Relaxing of Special Article 24 of the Constitution which grants police and the interior ministry special powers.
Progress on a law to normalize political party activity.
The price of resisting such pressures will mean even more costly political and economic isolation. A Finnish mining conglomerate, for example, recently withdrew from a $250 million copper project in Chile, citing Pinochet's treatment of organized labor as the primary reason.
Adding insult to an injured economy, the head of state was forced, on the March 11th anniversary of the 1980 constitution, to motorcade down a virtually empty main avenue, where only a few hundred die-hard supporters had turned out to greet him.
Nonetheless, the US government's decision to put some distance between itself and Pinochet is viewed warily here by politicians with long memories.
President Reagan's ringing speech following the UN resolution, referring to US opposition to dictatorships of the right as well as the left, awoke latent suspicion that the sudden scolding of Pinochet was designed primarily for domestic political consumption. US observers say the new policy may be more an effort to drum support for the $100 million Nicaraguan ``contra'' aid package than to advance the cause of democracy in the southern cone.