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Shhh. . . Chile dozes in last dreamy summer days

"Ssshhh . . ." wrote santiago's El Mercurio. "Santiago is sleeping." It is that time of year when many people here take their last fling of summer before the autumn chills set in.

Families take off to the beaches before school starts again in early March. The beaches of Vina del Mar and a dozen other South Pacific coast resorts are full to overflowing.

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Vina del Mar, in particular, has been crammed with Chileans and foreigners attending the 22nd annual Vina song festival. This year's celebrations feature an array of new Chilean and American songs.

President Augusto Pinochet Ugarte and many in the military government are out of town, too. General Pinochet is in the south --helping the one-time frontier city of Temuco celebrate its 100th anniversary as a center of German, British, and Yugoslav settlement. Today Temuco is the heart of Chile's wheat-growing region.

In the orchards of central Chile, preparations are going ahead for the late February-early March harvest of lemons, grapes, pears, peaches, and other fruit. It looks like a good crop year. On the streets of Santiago, vendors are selling early grapes and pears.

But business in general is slow. The coffeehouses where Santiagoans enjoy conversation over cups of Brazilian coffee are experiencing a 45 percent drop in sales compared to the busier times of year.

Stores are doing little better, despite sales. There just are not that many shoppers.

But storekeepers are not worried. "By the first week in March," says Salvador Medina Ezcurra, a clothing merchant, "we'll be doing just fine. People will be back from the beach and getting the kids ready for school -- and for the winter."

It is hard for chileans enjoying the warm, lazy summer days, to imagine winter and the snows that blanket the mountains just east of here.

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Yet snow fell this past week in some of the 16,000-foot and 17,000-foot passes in the Andes a scant 25 to 50 miles east of here.

Those snows made the rescue of several marooned mountaineers difficult, but Chile's remarkable mountain patrol managed to rescue them nonetheless.

Newspapers are full of accounts of the Vina song festival, where a haunting song called "Ay, Fernanda" took top prize. There is also a lot of talk about Army Maj. Daniel Walker, who was selected Chile's best horseman. Chileans hope he will win gold medals in the coming world equestrian competition.

This is a country that prides itself on horseback riding and horsemanship -- and the Army has some of the best horsemen in the country. Before heading south to Temuco for its anniversary, General Pinochet pinned a medal on Major Walker, a fourth generation Chilean of British background.

If there is a discordant note in this late-summer idyll, it is the mushrooming investigation into recent terrorist incidents, including the assassination of Army col. Roger Vergara in July and a bomb blast that destroyed Regine's, the local version of Paris's famed nightclub.

The Pinochet government thinks it has caught at least some of those involved in the Vergara affair.

Then there was the Pinochet decision not to allow Christian Democratic politician Andres Zaldivar Larrain back into the country because of antigovernment statements he made while abroad.

Maybe the Zaldivar incident will cause more of a ripple once Santiago returns to normal and people come back from vacation, but his plight caused little stir, even among Christian Democrats. One Christian Democrat said, "It could not have happened at a worse time. It is hard to stir public reaction in the waning days of summer."

Even the longstanding dispute with neighboring Argentina over control of three islands at the tip of South America near the Beagle Channel stirred limited comment here.

"Ssshhh." said El Mercurio

Santiago is indeed taking it e asy during these final days of summer.


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