At first glance, it seems surprising that a play called ``Traveling Lightly'' could be staged in Augusto Pinochet's Chile. His government is known as one of the most repressive in Latin America. Yet, the two-person play, running in the capital, deals with the highly sensitive issues of exile and torture.
To some Chileans, the staging of ``Traveling Lightly'' (and of several other antimilitary plays) indicates that the government, which human rights groups charge with regularly torturing and harassing opponents, has relaxed its tight control over Chilean society.
Journalists, artists, and diplomats agree - to a point. They say that the easing is part of a shrewd policy that allows artistic and press freedom that is unlikely to threaten the regime.
This sophisticated approach, observers say, seeks to give an outlet to domestic dissent and to defuse foreign criticism, while maintaining the military's control. Nowhere is the government's new approach better illustrated than with ``Traveling Lightly.''
The play depicts an actress having flashbacks of her torture and forced exile from Chile soon after President Salvador Allende was overthrown in 1973. Although apolitical, she is arrested shortly after the coup when she is caught hiding a friend from the military police. Tortured, then expelled from Chile, she settles in Spain, where the play takes place.
Luis Poirot, the play's director, who returned to Chile in 1985 after 12 years in exile, says the military regime wouldn't have permitted the staging of ``Traveling Lightly'' several years ago. But he and others warn the easing of restrictions doesn't mean that artistic and political freedom have returned to Chile.
Instead, they argue that the change reflects General Pinochet's enactment of a policy recommended several years ago by the secret police. Laid out in a memo later leaked to the press, the policy argues that banning plays and blocking the return of exiles cause more problems than they solve because of the unfavorable press and protests these actions generate.
Therefore, government officials who would have banned ``Traveling Lightly'' in the past permit its staging today since they do not expect it to threaten the 14-year-old military regime.
Similarly, the government has relaxed press controls within the past year by allowing publication of two opposition newspapers and two Socialist magazines.
Diplomats and journalists note, however, that no more than 100,000 people read the opposition newspapers and magazines. There are a number of reasons for the low readership:
Cost. The papers are too expensive for the country's poorer classes.
Tradition. Businessmen traditionally do not read opposition papers. They regard them as irrevelant and communist.
Political apathy on the part of much of the middle class.
``So few people read La Epoca and my magazine that we don't have much of an impact,'' says one of the magazine editors.
Meanwhile, the government monopolizes TV, by far the most influential medium, with an estimated 80 percent of Chilean households owning TV sets.
One way the government exercises control over TV, actors say, is through blacklists that prevent suspected critics of the military government from appearing on TV. One ``blacklisted'' actress, says her director told her that government officials warned him she was not to appear again after a recent role.
The government also rigorously controls TV's content. There are three TV stations. One is government owned. And the other two are university owned. The government appoints the universities' rectors. The rectors head the TV stations, leaving the opposition with little access.
Most programming is bland. On rare occasions when political talk shows are aired, the government is rarely criticized.
Critics charge that the government has turned the evening news into an especially effective propaganda tool. Millions of people watch the government-managed news, in which Pinochet is presented as a decisive leader, and opposition politicians as unprincipled and lacking vision.
The issue of cultural and press freedom is increasingly important as Pinochet prepares for a national plebiscite next year that would keep him in power until 1997.