WHEN Chilean courts sentenced national labor leader Manuel Bustos for the political crime of calling a general strike, they didn't send him to jail. They sent him to Parral, a virtual Siberia for a Chilean with antigovernment sentiments. Not much sympathy exists for an urban, blue-collar leader in this traditional farming enclave of right-wing landowners and backers of strong man Augusto Pinochet.
Banished for a year and a half to live within the confines of this remote rural village, the textile factory mechanic and president of the Workers' United Central (CUT) has no job, home, or family here.
Ironically, despite his isolation, or perhaps because of it, Mr. Bustos has become a national martyr and a symbol of change. Everyone from opposition politicians to diplomats to cabdrivers mentions him as a hostage of a system repudiated in the Oct. 5 plebiscite defeat of General Pinochet.
Bustos's release, along with that of CUT vice-president Arturo Mart'inez, also exiled in the north, is a political bargaining chip. It would take a direct executive order from Pinochet himself to release the two. The opposition is pressuring for just such a gesture to prove the regime's intent to loosen its dictatorial grip.
To be sure, Bustos has been effectively removed from the political ferment of Santiago. Moreover, he can't participate fully in the brain trust of the labor movement, which has more social influence than its limited membership would suggest.
But because of the internal exile, ``each day I'm more and more famous,'' Bustos says. On a recent day, he received four out-of-town delegations and numerous union business calls at the priest's home where he stays.
``The opposition wants us out soon and our relegation could turn into a dangerous problem for the government,'' Bustos says, noting that union leadership is considering a new national strike call. This is because the regime has shown little willingness to make the kinds of reforms the opposition believes are implicitly called for by Pinochet's electoral defeat.
The government's use of internal exile is aimed at neutralizing troublemakers in a watered-down version of political imprisonment that will draw less domestic and foreign outrage, Bustos says.
``Perhaps the political effect is to transform him into a more important figure than he would have been,'' admits Joaqu'in Lavin, an economist and official with the pro-government Independent Democratic Union party.
Bustos and Mr. Mart'inez were found guilty of violating internal security laws by calling the October 1987 national strike that resulted in violence and three people's death. The Supreme Court reversed a lower court acquittal and sent them into exile at the peak of the plebiscite campaign in September, increasing public belief that it was a political rather than a judicial decision.
Organized labor represents only 10 percent of Chilean workers. The CUT, a confederation of unions ranging from communists to centrist Christian Democrats like Bustos, represents the bulk of those unionized workers. Pinochet-regime labor laws that severely restrict union activity have kept the labor movement weak. (For example, collective bargaining can only be done shop by shop, and organizers can be fired.) So unions have slipped into political confrontation rather than sticking to collective bargaining.
But with Pinochet's defeat, there is an uneasiness in the business community, because labor reforms are virtually certain with any change of government. Some business leaders have even advocated the labor leaders' release, says Bustos, because of concern that the labor movement is gaining political momentum from their exile.
If it weren't for the plebiscite-inspired political opening that has allowed publicity of his case, Bustos might be just another human rights statistic in the blur of abuses during 15 years of Pinochet rule.
Indeed, internal exile was once heavily and effectively used to silence government opponents. In the period of 1983 to 1985, more than 600 Chileans were relegated to remote spots, from northern deserts to Antarctic islands.
Bustos is a virtual relic of the Pinochet-era human rights abuses. He has suffered nearly every form of abuse dealt out by the regime since its 1973 overthrow of President Salvador Allende. He was exiled to Rome for a year, jailed eight times for a total of 2 years, and beaten while in police custody.
He also has vivid memories of the National Stadium made infamous internationally by the film ``Missing.'' He was among the 7,000 Chileans rounded up at the time of the September 1973 coup and held incommunicado for three months in the stadium.
When he was released in December that year, he says, instead of calling home he walked directly in his rotting clothes back to his textile factory job and demanded back wages. He laughs at his image as the consummate labor negotiator, as he recounts the bittersweet victory he felt when the military officer in charge of the factory actually awarded him the back wages.
At times in a recent interview he could not hide the anguish and frustration of his separation from family and work and having to sign in with police twice daily.
Further, though he has seen a thaw in the way locals have received him since Pinochet's loss, the local atmosphere has basically been hostile since the day he was dropped here by police at 2 in the morning with no place to sleep.
Even though Parral is a slow-moving, amiable farm town, with poncho-wearing cowboys congregating at the feed and seed store, the regional reputation is one of rock-solid support for the Pinochet regime. Human rights groups concerned for Bustos's safety note that the infamous Colonia Dignidad is located here. The closed German-Chilean colony was allegedly used by the Pinochet regime in its early years as a torture camp. West Germany is investigating it for abusing its members.
In the political polarization that still exists in Chile since the bitter overthrow of Allende, many Chileans seem blind to political distinctions. Government supporters simply see Bustos as a ``communist'' whose calls for strikes are calls for a return to what they see as the chaos of the Marxist Allende years. Bustos is not a communist, and, as a centrist Christian Democrat, is even seen by many foreign observers as a moderating factor in the CUT's largely leftist leadership.
But he is a devoted unionist and has even opened an office here to organize farm workers. It's tough because, in an area steeped in tradition, there isn't much clamor for social justice. ``There are 7,000 workers in this region, which produces 75 percent of the rice consumed in Chile. And there's not a single union. I'm opening an office because there's lot of injustice in this area.''