With firm grip on power, Chile's strong man opens a few doors. Legalizes political parties, permits return of some exiles

Almost four years after public protests first broke out against the rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, Chile's strong man still seems confident he can stage manage a slow, deliberate transition to a ``protected democracy.'' The regime has eased some aspects of military rule and opened up a narrow political space by legalizing political party activity for the first time since the military takeover of 1973. These liberalizing steps have been accompanied by other hardline actions. But they nonetheless may help boost the government's international image as well as pave the way for the visit of Pope John Paul II scheduled for April.

The four-man governing junta approved on Jan. 15 a political parties law that permits the formation of all parties except Marxist groups, which are permanently banned under the controversial 1980 Constitution. The law defines rigid rules for party organization and functioning, and any failure to observe the rules could result in suspension of party leaders or dissolution of the party. Though officially banned, Chile's parties have been operating in a hazy limbo of semi-tolerated illegality in recent years, but they have been unable to call public meetings or have access to the media.

Non-Marxist politicians will now have a bit more room to operate and disseminate their ideas. But they will face enormous pressure to direct their activities toward the congressional elections scheduled for 1990, and not toward the 1989 plebiscite, in which Pinochet clearly intends to be the single candidate and to secure another eight years as President. Pinochet insists there will be no fundamental changes in the plebiscite plan and shows little nervousness over the possibility of losing. ``Sure, I'm tied to power, it's true. Write it down!'' he told an interviewer jovially in a year-end chat.

Some other aspects of military rule have been eased in recent weeks, partly in anticipation of the papal visit. The four-month-old state of siege was lifted Jan. 5, enabling opposition magazines to reappear in newsstands and restoring some freedom of assembly rights. And Pinochet recently announced that many of the 3,500 Chileans and their families exiled overseas would be allowed back into the country. An initial list of 227 approved names has been issued, and officials say they are examining another list of 500 exiles.

The regime's gesture on exiles suggests the military is unsure of the consequences of the papal visit and may be looking for ways to improve relations with the clerics, who have been highly critical of the system of exile.

Opponents of military rule look to the papal tour as a chance to rejuvenate the movement for a return to democracy. They believe the Pope's presence, his discourse, and the gathering of the faithful in this largely Catholic country will put Pinochet back on the defensive.

One bishop notes wryly that he received Christmas cards from all four junta members this year for the first time -- ``Quite a precious little gesture.''

But the liberalizing gestures are accompanied by some contradictory signs. The government created a new post of attorney-general to centralize its ``antiterrorism'' campaign and named a notorious hard-liner, Ambrosio Rodr'iguez, to the post. Under the country's antiterrorism law, Mr. Rodr'iguez will have vast powers to arrest and detain suspects for months or even years pending the resolution of their cases.

At the same time, government pressure has been relentless against the Catholic human rights group, the Vicariate of Solidarity. There have been constant verbal attacks, attempts to link the group to terrorism, and threats against its leaders. A doctor employed by the vicariate is now in prison for treating a wounded man who showed up at church offices. The treated man was later charged as being part of an attack in which a policeman was killed. Some vicariate staffers believe the government is determined to link the church's human rights work with ``terrorism'' through this case.

But despite the government's continued human rights abuses and persecution of those who document them, Pinochet finds himself clearly with the upper hand.

He seems to have scored with the United States by taking steps toward political normalization. The US government recently renewed Chile's favored status in the Generalized System of Preferences, an important trade benefit, while denying renewal for Paraguay and Nicaragua on the grounds of labor repression. In November, the US abstained on a major World Bank loan after having threatened to vote against it. Some observers took the abstention as a signal of both warning and reassurance that economic relations and all-important capital flows would not be interrupted if there were some progress on matters such as the political parties law.

By taking steps toward normalizing political party activity and easing up on the opposition press, Pinochet now will undoubtedly argue that the transition to his ``protected democracy'' is well under way.

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