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Children of exiles: what nation is home?

Two wide-eyed youngsters stepped off the 9-hour Paris-to-Santiago flight last week, looked up at the cold winter skies of Chile, and asked the young woman who met them: "Parlez-vous Francais?"

Although they are Chilean citizens, Maria and Jose are French-speaking. They grew up in Paris and arrived unaccompanied at Santiago's Comodore Arturo Merino Benitez Airport. They are children of political exiles.

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Prohibited by the 7-year-old military regime of Augusto Pinochet from returning to their country, the youths' parents have raised them among the thousands of Chileans making up the Paris Chilean exile community. It is the first time either of the two have seen their homeland.

When the Chilean armed forces seized power in 1973, toppling the 3-year-old socialist government of Salvador Allende Gossens, tens of thousands of government supporters were forced to flee in the after- math of one of the most violent coup d'etats the continent has seen this century. During the repression that followed, many took refuge in embassies of friendly countries such as Mexico, France, the Netherlands, and some Eastern European nations.

Current estimates put the number of Chileans now living outside the country at about 1 million, though the great number of those are voluntary exiles, many with jobs far better than they could find inside Chile.

The Roman Catholic Church here estimates that there are at least 40,000 political exiles scattered around the world. Some, like Allende's sister Laura, are sick and wish to return to Chile to live out the years that are left for them. Laura Allende has repeatedly been denied permission to enter Chile by the country's military authorities.

Many are declared enemies of the Pinochet regime, with some saying they will not return to Chile until the dictator falls, an event which at this time appears unlikely. A new draft constitution now before the junta may come to a government-sponsored vote either late this year or next, and guarantees the general at least five and potentially 11 more years in power.

"Chile will never return to the past," General Pinochet remarked recently. He promised that his government will remain in power until its objectives -- the "seven modernizations" -- are met. He expects the modernizations will totally restructure Chilean society, politics, and economy.

Maria and Jose, however, have come home to get to know the present Chile, the Chile they have never seen. "It made me cry to see them here," commented the young woman who received them at the airport. A worker at the church's Vicaria de Solidaridad, she herself has been under constant surveillance since 1973. She deals daily with the problems of the families of "disappeared" victims of the regime.

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The two children speak little Spanish, growing up in a suburban Paris neighborhood. In nearby neighborhoods are many other Latino families, some of whom are from neighboring Uruguay and Argentina, which are also under right-wing military regimes.

Maria and Jose's parents are determined that the children not lose all contact with their culture and their nation's heritage, even though they must do so in the hands of distant relatives.

Within the country a network of volunteers has come together and, in cooperation with exiles abroad, has begun a worldwide "Pro-Retorno" campaign for exiles' rights.

"Even Marxists are Chileans, too," Manuel Sanhueza, president of the Group of 24, a dissident group of constitutional experts, said recently.

The government claims the exile campaign is part of a worldwide "Soviet Marxist conspiracy."

Those applying for entry visas at Chilean embassies around the world are put through a rigorous background check by the state security agency, the Central Nacional des Informaciones, which a few years ago replaced the dreaded Direccion de Inteligencia Nacional. Often the requests go unanswered for months or years.

With the Pinochet government unwilling to budge on its hard-line position, more years of waiting appear to be on the agenda for the parents of Maria and Jose, and many thousands more like them in Paris and around the world.

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