Gen. Augusto Pinochet has spent the last days of the campaign for Wednesday's crucial plebiscite in Chile trying to solidify his support. And, although opinion polls show him trailing the opposition, he retains substantial backing - a fact that may surprise outsiders who see the Chilean strong man as the embodiment of repression and dictatorial rule.
The most recent poll, published last Monday, showed 47 percent of the nation opposed Pinochet, while only 20 percent favored the general.
Businessmen, members of the military and their families, the well-to-do, and some beneficiaries of his populist measures express varying degrees of enthusiasm for the 72-year-old general who seized power in a bloody 1973 coup.
As part of his campaign for a ``yes'' vote in the plebiscite - which would grant him eight more years in power - Pinochet has donned civilian clothes to build an image as a grandfatherly statesman preparing Chile for transition to a ``protected democracy.''
But his appeal to traditional backers has little to do with the smiling portrait on his campaign posters. They are loyal to the old soldier who frequently declares ``war'' on international Marxism and treats dissidents with disdain and an iron fist.
Business circles are the most enthusiastic Pinochet boosters, especially given his economic managers success in recent years in creating ideal business conditions. Chile has radically revamped its previously mixed economy, dismantled state companies, and given businessmen enormous freedom, while maintaining low inflation and stable financial conditions.
``Chile offers its people the best quality of life in Latin America,'' Manuel Feliu, president of an industrialists' group, says. ``It's not we businessmen who support the government, it's the government who supports us.''
Business leaders point to positive figures on export growth, debt reduction, inflation, and job creation to argue that Chile is on the road to becoming a developed nation. Poverty still exists, they concede, but the foundation has been laid for solid advances.
But income distribution statistics reveal that the benefits of the recent growth have gone in large measure to the rich. Wealthy Chileans, not surprisingly, tend to give Pinochet high praise.
At a recent campaign lunch in Las Condes, an elegant section of Santiago, hundreds of well-dressed Pinochet backers roared their support and applauded his attacks on the civilian politicians who oppose him. As is customary, they booed and even physically harassed foreign journalists, whom they accuse of spreading falsehoods about Chile.
``Tell the truth!'' they chanted while some in the crowd shoved reporters.
Right-wing Chileans believe the foreign press focuses on poverty, rather than economic progress, and on sensitive subjects such as torture and disappearances of political dissidents, stories they believe are inventions of the ``world Marxist press.''
In private conversations, pro-government Chileans deny that Pinochet is responsible for human rights abuses or simply shift the discussion to ``terrorism.''
Patricia Maldonado, a well-known Chilean singer who does pro-Pinochet TV spots told the newspaper El Mercurio last week she doubts the existence of ``disappeared'' persons. ``I know of one case of a woman whose son is supposedly disappeared,'' she said, ``and in fact he's living in New York on a grant and doing fine.''
In addition, pro-regime Chileans are often violently anticommunist. ``Communists are the worst elements on earth,'' said Manuel Carrillo at a pro-government rally in Santiago. ``They lie, they murder, they do anything to achieve power. The armed forces have to guarantee that they're crushed forever.''
Such sentiments are expressed by Pinochet and the governing junta regularly. ``The nation must choose between good and evil,'' said Navy commander, Adm. Jose T. Merino, last week, ``between God and Satan, between communism and anticommunism.'' Admiral Merino has coined the word ``humanoids'' to refer to the government's opponents.
Many military families are affected by this relentless indoctrination.
At a family gathering in an Army officer's house recently, his 20-year-old daughter opined that Pinochet ``ought to round up all the communists again and shoot them, like he did in 1973,'' to the approving nods of her relatives.
Finally, many Chileans of modest means are persuaded that Pinochet is good for the country. Women, who tend to be more pro-government than men, often express satisfaction with the armed forces' ability to provide a safe environment for them and their families.
Others are impressed by the government's subsidized housing program or other public works projects, such as clinics, roads, and parks.
``The mayor in my comuna [municipality] has the door open to us,'' said another Pinochet backer at the rally who lives in a marginal neighborhood. ``It's not like before, when the parties ran it, and everything was politics.''