CHILE's government has reimposed a state of siege and arrested a number of opposition leaders. As justification, the government cites the renewed ``Marxist threat'' underscored by Sunday's assassination attempt on President Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. The assassination attempt gives a momentary upper hand to General Pinochet and the Chilean military. But they would miscalculate terribly if the only lesson learned from this incident were the imposition of new repression -- which can only fuel public dissatisfaction with the Pinochet regime and spark the type of ugly violence that repression invariably breeds.
Chile, it must not be forgotten, is a South American nation with a deep, and proud, democratic tradition. In that regard, the 13 years of Pinochet rule, to be celebrated throughout Chile tomorrow with military trappings, must be viewed an aberration. Most Chileans -- ordinary citizens as well as the nation's business community -- yearn for public order and protection against Marxist extremists. At the same time, millions of Chileans also want a return to legitimate civilian political rule and, at the least, an end to human rights abuses.
General Pinochet now talks about a ``war between democracy on the one hand and Marxism on the other.'' How ironic that he should in effect classify his regime with ``democracy'' in this contest. The Pinochet juxtaposition cannot be taken at face value. To do so would dispirit the junta's democratic opposition -- and push additional numbers of Chileans into extremist camps.
To its credit, the Reagan administration has been taking a deservedly tougher stand against the Pinochet regime in recent months. Indeed, after Sunday's attack, the US, while deploring the assassination attempt, also condemned the reimposition of the state of siege.
The US must be firm in signaling its displeasure if, as expected, General Pinochet seeks to be the junta's candidate for president in the 1989 election, when only one candidate will be allowed on the ballot. In October, international lending agencies will review some $600 million in aid to Chile. If Chile does not move toward greater democracy, the aid packages should be opposed.