Next year is due to be the last one for Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte as head of the Army - and the threatening shadow the former dictator casts over Chile's young democracy.
Last month he embarrassed Chilean officials just weeks before a summit of Latin American and European leaders to celebrate democracy by ordering the arrest of Gladys Marn, general secretary of Chile's Communist Party.
"What happened to me proves that there is no real freedom of expression in Chile," Ms. Marn told the Monitor.
Marn called the general a "blackmailer and psychopath who took power through betrayal and crime" in a speech given on the anniversary of General Pinochet's 1973 violent coup against Salvador Allende, the world's first democratically elected Marxist president. Her subsequent arrest demonstrates the continuing inadequacies of Chilean democracy and shows that, despite giving up power in 1990, Pinochet is determined not to go quietly from the political arena, analysts say.
"Chilean democracy is still in a phase of transition," says Eduardo Gamarra, head of Latin American studies at Miami's Florida International University. "Many problems regarding the civil-military relationship remain unresolved." Pinochet's authority is mandated by the 1980 Constitution he wrote that requires self-censorship by public figures.
Marn, for example, was charged with slander under a law that imposes up to five years in prison for anyone convicted of defaming any military, judiciary, or elected official. She was released only after garnering so much international support that Pinochet was forced to drop the lawsuit, observers here say.
And consider the following:
*Pinochet cannot be removed as Army chief until March 1998, and then can become a senator.
*He will choose the candidates to be his successor.
*The military still appoints eight senators who hold the swing vote in the upper house.
*Military officers still sit on a series of nonelected bodies that act as checks and balances on Congress and the president.
Ironically, Pinochet is trying to transform his image from warrior to elder statesman. He has traveled to nations that once barred him entry, making such conciliatory statements as, "I hope Chile will always solve its quarrels with embraces and forgetfulness."
Many Chileans seem to agree. "Everything you see around you is initially due to Pinochet," taxi driver Rene Ratica says. Before Pinochet's 1970s free-market reforms, Chileans faced shortages and high inflation. Even though the income gap has widened - Chile's is now the second worst in Latin America - Chile has enjoyed positive economic growth rates for 14 years and single-digit inflation since 1994.
While, outside Chile, Pinochet will likely be remembered for the shocking violence of the coup and the human rights abuses that followed, many here see him as a white knight who put them on the road to first world status.
In a 1996 poll by Latinobarometro, a Santiago public-opinion consortium, 1 in 5 Chileans said they believed "in some circumstances, an authoritarian government is preferable to a democratic government," while 67 percent said Pinochet's dictatorship was either good or included both good and bad.
"Chilean society is now fundamentally conservative and agrees with gradual democratization," Mr. Gamarra says. "It doesn't want anything to rock [its] economic stability."
In May, a top Pinochet aide told the daily newspaper El Mercurio that the general may run for president in 1999. Pollster Marta Lagos says the general's popularity has been steadily growing: "All he has to do is lift a finger and he has 20 percent of the vote."
Yet some observers say it is more likely Pinochet will retire. At that time, Ms. Lagos says, Chile will finally back reforms to limit the military's influence. "Once Pinochet leaves, there will be a change in attitude since many Chileans will perceive that the transition period from dictatorship to democracy has ended."