CHILE'S Congress begins debate tomorrow on measures that go a long way toward stuffing the military back into the barracks.
Despite being Latin America's economic Wunderkind, Chile's fledgling democracy is still shaky, its institutions under the hand of a military run by former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet and his right-wing supporters.
The constitutional changes to be debated tomorrow would eliminate appointed senators, which now give the promilitary right a majority in the Senate, and reduce the military's influence on powerful bodies, such as the Constitutional Tribunal and the National Security Council.
The proposals are part of the government's attempts to achieve ''national reconciliation'' after the brutal military regime of General Pinochet from 1973 to 1990. While Chile has had a civilian government for five years, the military still plays a strong role in politics and is fighting to retain an amnesty law for human rights violations committed during the military regime.
''Every day, there are more sources of conflict. Instead of resolving conflict, we're moving backward,'' said Pamela Pereira, a human rights lawyer. ''Chilean society will not accept the possibility of hiding the truth, the reality of impunity.''
On Wednesday, Adm. Jose Merino, a member of Pinochet's four-man junta, and members of the former cabinets, protested the reforms, saying they would destroy the balance of power between prodemocratic and promilitary forces.
Both the government and its critics agree they would like to turn the page on the past. For the military's supporters this would mean an end to investigations of human rights violations that led to the death or disappearance of more than 2,000 Chileans.
A recent poll by the Center for Studying Contemporary Reality (CERC), however, found that 64 percent of Chileans believe that reconciliation will be impossible until the whereabouts of the disappeared have been revealed.
At stake is the credibility of some of Chilean democracy's most important institutions, especially the courts, which turned a blind eye on the military government's violations of civil and human rights. ''If they had really wanted to, the courts could have resolved any case,'' says one insider, highly placed within the courts. ''There's still time for the justice system to function as a real justice system.''
Marta Lagos, an expert pollster in Santiago, said the courts' reputation took a leap forward last May, when the Supreme Court upheld prison sentences for Gen. Manuel Contreras, head of the dreaded secret police, and his second-in-command, Pedro Espinoza, convicted of the 1976 killing of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffit in Washington.
After four months of intense negotiations between the government and the Army, Generals Contreras and Espinoza are finally in jail, along with eight police officers, who kidnapped and brutally killed three members of the Communist Party in 1985.
Nevertheless, human rights lawyers complain that since the Contreras conviction in May, 12 cases involving 110 people have been closed, mostly by using an amnesty law decreed by military President Pinochet in 1978. They warn that notorious torturers, like Osvaldo Romo, currently in a Santiago jail, may soon be back on the streets if this trend continues.
''The guilty party here is the right [wing],'' says lawyer Pereira. ''They've maintained the political system created by the dictatorship at any cost. They're accumulating fuel for a real time bomb.''
In an attempt to overcome the impasse, the government in August proposed changes to both the Constitution and the way the courts handle human rights cases, reaching agreement with Renovacion Nacional, one of the two main parties in the opposition coalition. The agreement pitted RN's new generation of leaders against old-timers who formed part of the Pinochet government.
Although the newcomers eventually won a party assembly last month, their decision has left the coalition paralyzed and the party split. On the government's side, the Socialist Party strongly opposes the human rights measures. The SP says the changes, which would allow judges to close cases without resolving them, would not bring justice or relief to survivors of human rights violations.
In the midst of this conflict, 800 supporters paid $150 each to attend a gala celebration of Pinochet's 80th birthday in Santiago Nov. 25. In his speech, Pinochet expressed sorrow at the death of his adversaries, but swore he'd do it all again.