Critics say US is easing pressure on Chile for political reform. Speculation that arms caches, assassination attempt alarmed US

In the wake of recent Reagan administration actions pertaining to Chile, congressional and other critics have charged that the United States has adopted a more accommodating policy toward the military government in Santiago. In the past two months the US has backed off from its earlier opposition to international loans for Chile, voted against a United Nations resolution condemning Santiago's human rights record, and rejected calls to end preferential trade status for some Chilean exports to the US due to Chile's labor practices.

Critics contend that that the Reagan administration, despite its condemnations of Chile's lack of progress toward a democratic government, is currently following a ``look-the-other-way policy'' with regard to President Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts wrote recently.

While administration officials deny there has been a change in US policy toward Chile, members of Congress plan to confront the White House over how best to deal with General Pinochet.

Senator Kennedy and Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa are preparing to introduce legislation calling for limited economic sanctions against Chile, aides say.

Also, Rep. Don J. Pease (D) of Ohio says he will seek hearings of the International Trade Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee to investigate why Chile's ``terrible'' worker-rights record did not lead to its removal from the list of countries that receive favorable US trade treatment.

``The policy is not changed,'' argues Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams. He said last month that the US is still concerned about Chilean human rights violations and the need for a transition to democratic government in Santiago.

Various analysts agree, however, that the policy has undergone a subtle but significant shift since last August's discoveries in Chile of large caches of arms allegedly intended for communist rebels, and after the guerrillas' Sept. 7 assassination attempt against General Pinochet.

Those events seemed to end a period of tougher US posture against Chile, an era which began with the appointment of Harry Barnes as ambassador to Santiago in November 1985. Ambassador Barnes quickly angered the military junta by meeting with the government's political opposition and openly prodding Pinochet to democratize the country's political system.

In March 1986, the US sponsored a resolution denouncing Chile's human rights record that was passed by the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Relations soured further in the wake of the killing, allegedly by Chilean soldiers, of US resident Rodrigo Rojas in early July. On July 30, Mr. Abrams told a congressional committee that he opposed new international loans for Chile on human rights grounds.

But the arms discoveries and the attempt on Pinochet's life appeared to heighten the administration's concerns about the stability of post-Pinochet Chile.

On Nov. 20 the US abstained in a World Bank vote on a $250 million loan for Santiago, and on Nov. 28 Washington voted against a new UN resolution criticizing the junta's human rights violations. On Dec. 2, the US abstained - rather than casting a negative vote - in an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) vote on a $319 million loan for Chile.

These moves reflected ``an important change'' in Washington's attitude toward Pinochet, argues Peter Hakim, staff director of the Inter-American Dialogue, a private Washington-based policy group. The US has moved ``from forthright opposition to renewed tolerance,'' he writes in a recent editorial, adding that ``rightly or wrongly,'' Chile's rulers ``now feel reassured that they retain some measure of support in the White House.''

The administration notes that the US abstentions in votes on World Bank and IDB loans to Chile technically fulfilled Congress's requirement that the US oppose multilateral loans to human rights violators. But Washington's vote on the UN resolution bewildered congressional and other critics.

``The UN vote was inexcusable, a disaster,'' said an aide to Senator Harkin, another strong critic of Washington's Chile policy. ``We at least could have abstained,'' he adds.

State Department spokesman Charles Redman said after the UN vote that the resolution ``was not balanced or constructive,'' its ``most severe failing'' being that ``it did not make reference adequately to the disturbing environment of political violence and terrorism in Chile.''

The critics were further angered when Clayton Yeutter, the US trade representative, announced on Jan. 2 that Chile would not be pulled from the list of nations eligible to receive duty-free status on products they export to the US. Legislation requires the administration to rescind this trade protection from nations that fail to adhere to international standards of worker rights.

A senior State Department official concedes that ``there have been some problems'' regarding harassment and repression by Chile's security forces against certain union figures, but he maintains that Santiago's ``overall'' labor situation ``isn't that bad'' compared to other Latin nations. The official adds that Santiago has vowed to implement reforms suggested by the US.

A review of Chile's labor practices has been under way since last summer, according to administration officials. Mr. Yeutter says Santiago will remain on the list of preferred countries, under review, for another year.

This led the Overseas Private Investment Corporation to reject calls to drop Chile from the list of countries in which US corporations can receive federal risk insurance on their foreign investments. Congress requires OPIC to refuse insurance to companies operating in countries with substandard labor practices, but the agency follows the policy lead set by Yeutter's office.

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