THE attempted assassination of Chilean President Augusto Pinochet on the eve of the country's Independence Day celebrations was by far the most tragic episode in the country's recent history. The military wasted no time in clamping down -- arresting ``known leftists'' and Roman Catholic priests, muzzling the opposition press, searching and seizing at random in reaction to an unparalleled personal attack on the country's commander in chief.
Chile, which had appeared on the verge of democracy in March when I returned to Santiago for the first time in 11 years, now seems doomed to another decade of repression and reprisals. Only this time, there need be no feigned concern or concessions by the military to international human rights groups.
Mr. Pinochet cannot help taking the attempt on his life personally. Although he long ago lost the support of most of Chile's middle class, he had saved face by recruiting the loyalties of conservative upper-middle-class women known as ``momias'' (literally, ``mummies''), military wives grateful for their husbands' promotions, and government workers who retained their jobs.
By March, Chile's middle class, which had viewed the 1973 coup as a clinical necessity, given the political and economic chaos under Salvador Allende and a widespread perception that the country had been on the brink of civil war, felt it was time for Pinochet to hand back the political reins. In private they ridiculed the President. In public they ignored him or chanted, ``Yes, he will fall.''
With the restoration of democracy in neighboring Argentina after years of military repression, the ouster in February of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, and Haiti's ``Baby Doc'' Duvalier, it seemed only a matter of time before Chilean democracy too was restored.
``The problem is that while everybody knew Allende had to go, nobody expected Pinochet to last this long,'' a retired Chilean police officer confided, echoing the general sentiment in March.
But the bungled assassination put an end to any immediate hope for political liberalization of the country. Tragically, the attempt will help undermine any remaining United States influence on Pinochet, a commodity already in short supply since the US supported a United Nations resolution in March condemning Chile's human rights abuses.
Worse still, unless the new Chilean Constitution (which was voted in by a majority in 1980 during an unprecedented economic boom) is changed before it takes formal effect in 1989, Pinochet will have legal carte blanche to institutionalize the military's stranglehold on politics.
It's ironic that Chile, once one of the only surviving democracies in Latin America, now is the only military dictatorship left there, apart from Paraguay.
Ironic too that the military government that took power in 1973 to liberate the country from a ``Marxist yoke'' now owns or controls more of Chile's industry and communications system than Allende could ever have hoped to.
The latest military crackdown will not resolve the country's longstanding political impasse between the left and the right. It will not necessarily help repay a burgeoning $20 billion national debt, find work for the estimated 30 percent of Chileans without jobs, or school a new generation of Chilean youth in the conduct of democratic politics. It will only sharpen the battle lines. And Chileans will once again be reminded that what is being played there is no game.
But the longer democracy is postponed in Chile, the harder it will be to convince the downtrodden that democracy is a workable solution. And the more repressive the military authorities become, the harder it will be to convince Chile's youth of the efficacy of peaceful protests.
In the words of the former junta spokesman, Federico Willoughby, who formed his own opposition party in 1983 to urge reform: ``We're trying to convince the military to modify the 1980 Constitution to bring about a return to real democracy. Otherwise, the resulting polarization will lead either to a dictatorship of the proletariat or a dictatorship of the military, which would mean that the fight to rid Chile of communism was in vain.''
Jane Halsema is a free-lance writer and reporter in San Diego.