The downtown took on the look and feel of a combat zone. Army paratroopers, their faces streaked with menacing black camouflage paint, moved in Tuesday to halt an unauthorized march. Troops fired automatic weapons in the air and police units lobbed tear-gas shells into crowds, sending demonstrators and pedestrians running for cover.
This scene, the second of its kind in three weeks, is the latest move in a crackdown by Chilean strong man Augusto Pinochet Ugarte on opponents of his 13-year regime.
But despite the widespread public disapproval of General Pinochet's rule, Chile shows few signs of becoming the next country to overturn an authoritarian government.
In the opinion of most political analysts here, Pinochet is still in control of his country's political situation. True, there is growing uneasiness among members of Chile's military junta with Pinochet's heavy-handed policies.
But Chile's chronically fragmented opposition parties have been unable to convert Pinochet's unpopularity into the mass mobilization that many opposition politicians believe it would take to force him to the bargaining table.
``Pinochet doesn't negotiate, because he has no reason to,'' says political scientist Carlos Huneeus of Santiago's Catholic University. ``He's not really in trouble yet.''
Pinochet's problem may eventually come from within the four-man military junta that serves as the legislative branch of the government. Navy, Air Force, and national police members have begun to argue with Pinochetover policy.
Political observers here believe that the Navy and the Air Force are hesitant about Pinochet's plans to have himself elected President in 1989. According to Chile's Constitution, which was drafted by the regime and approved by voters in a controversial 1980 plebiscite, the junta must name a presidential candidate by unanimous vote in late 1988. The nominee would then be subject to a ``yes or no'' popular vote in 1989.
It was once taken for granted that the junta would nominate Pinochet. But, says Edgardo Boeninger, director of the Center for Development Studies, a Chilean think tank, ``The Navy and the Air Force are shocked by the extremes of repression by Pinochet, with the explicit support of the Army. They also don't like the fact that the Army, in the person of Pinochet, would stay in power while they leave.''
For now, the practical significance of this difference of opinion within the junta is in doubt, because Pinochet enjoys the unquestioning loyalty of the Army, the most powerful segment of the armed forces.
Moderate opposition parties of the center and center-left have called for demonstrations to capitalize on the possible splits within the regime by keeping up pressure in the streets.
A ``civilian assembly,'' made up of Chile's most important professional, student, and labor groups, was recently organized and has promised to step up protest. There are plans for a nationwide general strike in June. Privately, some moderates acknowledge that previous attempts at mass mobilization have failed -- because of repression by the government and because of lack of public support. Anything more than partial success is unlikely now, they say.
``If democracy is really what one seeks,'' Pinochet warned his opponents in a speech last week, ``one doesn't get it by promoting ungovernability and civil disobedience.''
Opposition politicians admit they have an image problem. According to a newly released survey by Santiago's Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, 73 percent of Chileans want substantial or radical changes in their society, but 53 percent say they are ``indifferent, bored, or antagonistic'' toward politics. ``There's a disenchantment with the political class,'' says Socialist Party leader Ricardo Lagos. ``We've been good at saying `no' to Pinochet and bad at saying `yes' to an alternative.''
Some moderates say they are looking for a new political strategy that plays down social mobilization, and instead tacitly accepts the 1980 Constitution, including the 1989 election provisions. The goal: to convince dissenters on the junta that dumping Pinochet and allowing free elections in 1989 would allow the military a dignified exit from power and assure the country a non-leftist government.
But analysts say that such a course risks leaving the protest field to the Communists. At the same time, the President's intransigence toward moderates pushes more of his younger opponents toward the left. A leftist threat would likely rally military doubters on the junta behind Pinochet.
``For Pinochet to accept any compromise is to admit weakness,'' says one opposition leader. ``His game is trying to polarize the conflict in Chile and take it to such a situation that the Communists become the leader of the opposition. Then he can say again, `Me or the Marxists.' ''