On the eve of a nationwide day of protest, Chilean strong man Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte appears to face a deepening credibility crisis. The general is still smarting from an aborted attempt to launch his presidential campaign for 1989, a shift in United States policy away from supporting the Chilean regime, domestic strikes, and political confrontations.
The Civic Assembly -- a coalition of labor, professional, and student groups -- has announced a one-day mobilization against military rule for Sept. 4, and the leftist Popular Democratic Movement has added a call for a general strike on both Sept. 4 and 5. These begin what could become a week of unrest, leading up to the Sept. 11 anniversary of the coup in 1973 that overthrew the elected government of Marxist Salvador Allende's and installed military rule.
If the strikes and demonstrations are effective, they could provide a powerful boost to the widespread feeling that the 70-year-old general should be thinking about retirement. Opposition leaders hope that military leaders themselves will come to support this view.
Such optimism on the part of the opposition rises from several events of the past two months, including a successful general strike in July and the international scandal caused by the Army's apparent burning of two teenagers during the protest. One of the victims -- Rodrigo Rojas, a 19-year-old Chilean-born resident of the US -- died shortly after the burning. The opposition claims that these events have demonstrated Pinochet's continuing loss of credibility.
Two events in particular suggest growing doubts on the part of the military and escalating public dissatisfaction.
When Pinochet indicated in a speech after the strike his intent to continue in the presidency into the next decade, he was publicly challenged by three of the four military commanders in the ruling junta. And when the government subsequently announced the uncovering of major arms caches which it claims belonged to leftist paramilitary groups, the announcements were greeted by skepticism and even disbelief on the part of the public.
The fractious opposition, plagued by ideological and tactical differences, was encouraged by the reaction of the Navy, Air Force, and police chiefs to the idea of another term in office for Pinochet.
The country's Constitution, completely rewritten under Pinochet's direction in 1980, calls for a presidential plebiscite in 1989 on a single candidate to be nominated by the junta, which acts as the regime's legislative branch. If approved in the vote, the nominee would then serve an eight-year term as president.
Many opposition leaders have sought to negotiate a more rapid return to democracy involving open elections in 1989; others of more conservative bent want to follow the Constitution, but with a candidate other than Pinochet himself.
In his July speech, Pinochet declared that the Constitution gave him ``eight years to write the laws, and eight more years to apply them.'' He added: ``The government of the armed forces was never conceived as a mere parenthesis in the country's civic history. . . . We're not going to abandon power just for the heck of it.''
His statements drew criticism from across the political spectrum. Even the pro-government Independent Democratic Union, composed of the regime's most loyal ideologues, rejected the announcement as ``erroneous and contrary to the spirit and the letter of the Constitution, which nowhere refers to a term of 16 years.''
The most telling resistance to his ambitions came from members of the junta itself.
``It is not yet decided who will be the presidential candidate,'' said police chief Gen. Rodolfo Stange Oelckers. ``My constitutional mandate ends in 1989,'' added Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Fernando Matthei Aubel. ``After that, I have nothing more to do.'' Only Army chief Gen. Julio Canessa Robert remained silent.
The Army -- the most important branch of the military -- appears to remain firmly under the control of its commander and President.
Pinochet backed down two weeks later, stating that he had not meant to propose ``any personal candidacy,'' merely the continuity of the goals of his government.
With Pinochet's middle-class support rapidly diminishing and even business and conservative political leaders distancing themselves from his personal rule, the armed forces -- primarily the Army -- remain his only firm base of support.
In early August, Pinochet had a new opportunity to rally the high command with the discoveries, beginning on Aug. 11, of huge arsenals near the city of Vallenar, about 400 miles north of Santiago. The caches were said to contain some 3000 M-16 rifles, 2 million rounds of ammunition, 2,000 hand grenades, and two tons of TNT.
But Pinochet's warnings about the security threat being mounted by ``international Marxism'' have fallen surprisingly flat.
As caches were unearthed over a period of two weeks by the Army and secret police, television journalists confronted Navy commander Adm. Jos'e T. Merino Castro and Defense Minister Adm. Patricio Carvajal Prado with the suggestion that the whole affair was a fake. And a wide variety of Chileans -- taxi drivers, street vendors, store owners, and even police officers -- openly questioned the government's claims, many assuming them to be part of a stage-managed scare campaign.
Stung by the skepticism, the government ordered the midnight arrest on Aug. 25 of writers and editors at the opposition magazine ``Cauce,'' charging them with ``slandering the armed forces'' in an article that cast doubt on the official version of the arms' origins.
(Over the past weekend, the government suspended publication of ``Cauce'' and a second dissident magazine, ``Analisis,'' for the next two weeks, preventing coverage of scheduled demonstrations.)
Political scientist Heraldo Munoz of the Roman Catholic Church's Academy of Christian Humanism, says the government is reaping the consequences of having ``cried wolf'' once too often.
``It is a measure of the government's isolation from the realities of our society,'' he says. Mr. Munoz expects that the arsenal discoveries are ``probably, to some extent, true,'' a view shared by a number of Western diplomats.
If so, he adds, ``it is an extremely grave and serious event.'' But, he says, ``We are arriving at the point where Pinochet's intransigence is leading us into an extreme polarization before 1989.''
Part of the public's disbelief stems from the Army's disastrous handling of the burning incident on July 2 which killed Rojas and has left another teenager, Carmen Gloria Quintana, in critical condition. A civilian court at first accepted the Army's version that the burnings occurred by accident. But on Aug. 12, a five-member military court rejected that story and indicted Lt. Pedro Fern'andez for ``unnecessary violence.''
The President's wife, Lucia Hiriart, did the government's cause no favor by declaring her sympathy for Lt. Fern'andez, whose only error, she said, was being ``too soft.''
Public confidence was further weakened over the weekend of Aug. 23 when three eyewitnesses to the burnings were seized and held incommunicado by the military judge in charge of the case, and a fourth said he had been kidnapped on Aug. 22 and held for six hours by unidentified persons who warned him not to testify.
The ``burned children'' case, as it is known here, has cost the Army dearly in prestige. Opposition leaders preparing for this month's confrontation with the regime are hoping that recent events are causing some Army officers to have second thoughts about their growing role in domestic repression.