Chilean opposition treads warily on rights issue

Chilean activists are concerned that human rights issues are taking a back seat as opposition leaders maneuver to gain more political power. Indeed, human rights activists say, during the campaign for this month's plebiscite on Gen. Augusto Pinochet's rule, opposition politicians played down human rights, which for 15 years of authoritarian rule had been one of their key rallying points.

Some polls, however, showed the issue was not a high priority for voters. And opposition members say they did not want to raise the level of fear in the population nor anger the military at such a delicate moment in the country's transition to democracy.

Human rights is no longer ``the center of public attention,'' says Andres Dominguez of the Chilean Commission on Human Rights. ``And that's a problem, because very soon we could return to the same problems we have had because there still is a dictatorship here.

``Even if the dictator disappears, we've got a dictatorial state established by the profoundly antidemocratic Constitution,'' says Mr. Dominguez, jabbing a finger at a battered and marked-up copy of the military-drafted Constitution.

But Manuel Bustos, a Christian Democratic labor leader currently in forced internal exile, says political negotiation should now take first priority over human rights issues.

``People have to recognize there are fewer violations now than the daily events of a year ago. And in order to correct or punish past violations we need to have a transition first,'' says Mr. Bustos, president of the Central Unitaria of Workers and a veteran of political jailings and foreign exile.

There has been progress. Last week, for example, the government released the nation's premier political prisoner, former Vice-President Clodomiro Almeyda. On Aug. 24, it also lifted the state of emergency, which had restricted freedom of expression, assembly, and movement. During last month's campaign, the opposition was allowed to have television time on talk shows and run advertisements. And exiles have been allowed to return.

But hundreds of people have reportedly been fired in retaliation for voting ``no'' to eight more years of General Pinochet during the Oct. 5 plebiscite.

TV access is still limited. And although opposition demonstrations have been permitted, they are not always at preferred sites or always without police attacks.

Two labor leaders continue to be relegated to remote spots under forced internal exile, the government holds about 430 political prisoners, and has 31 cases against opposition journalists for such crimes as insulting the military. As in the democratic transitions of other neighboring Latin nations earlier this decade, says Cynthia Brown, an Americas Watch committee official here, Chilean political players are ``trying to strike the delicate balance of getting past it [rights abuses] and acknowledging it. ...''

As in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, Chile's transition to civilian democratic rule will come because the military regime permits it. Taking the hard line on prosecution of human rights violations by the military would likely forestall transition talks with the government.

Neither prosecutions for past human rights abuse nor discussion on abuses still occurring are on the centrist opposition's agenda for negotiations.

Constitutional reform and presidential election timetables are the main points the opposition hopes to discuss.

Many Chileans have lived under a cloud of fear and uncertainty since a Pinochet-led coup in 1973 overthrew Marxist President Salvador Allende. Pinochet sought to keep Chile out of the hands of real or perceived communist terrorists.

The killings, torture cases, and disappearances in the first years of Pinochet's regime have largely been replaced by arrests, exile, threats, and street beatings. But the 1986 burning of two young Chilean demonstrators, allegedly by soldiers, was a brutal reminder that human rights progress was still at the mercy of the military regime.

``The system is intact and can be used at any moment,'' says Enrique Palet, an official with the Roman Catholic Church's Vicariate of Solidarity. ``Next year could be a year of a great level of political tension because the opposition understands the plebiscite victory to mean changes in the regime and institutions, and the government understands that its duty is to preserve the regime and push toward the future without any change.''

``And,'' he adds, ``we've learned that where political tension goes up, so do human rights violations.''

Many observers, however, point to the fact that the opposition handled human rights issues in a subdued, but emotionally stunning way in its pre-plebiscite TV ads. Aimed to minimize public fear, the ads did not harangue the government for past abuses.

The success of this approach may help to justify the opposition's human rights stance in the coming months of difficult negotiations.

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