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Leading Chile to democracy

On the surface, a year appears to have made quite a difference in Chile. Gone - at least for the time being - are the huge demonstrations against the authoritarian regime of President Augusto Pinochet Ugarte that rocked the nation last September.

This month's demonstrations, on the anniversary of Mr. Pinochet's takeover 11 years ago, were far smaller, reflecting the fragmenting of the opposition leadership and citizen unwillingness to risk confrontations with club-wielding security forces in a futile cause.

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Yet the underlying unhappiness of many Chileans with Pinochet remains as strong as ever. The longtime military rule now seems oppressive to many; the economy is in poor shape, and unemployment remains high.

A danger is that the deep opposition could ultimately be translated into strong support for a far-leftist, even communist, alternative to the current right-wing government. In recent months terrorist attacks, primarily from the left, have begun to increase.

To prevent such a threat from the far left, centrist Chilean politicians must soon exert the forceful leadership necessary to rally support for a moderate democratic form of government to succeed Pinochet.

The United States, which admittedly has little leverage with the Chilean strong man, should do what it can to nudge Pinochet into agreeing to step down before his term of office ends in 1989. The US should try to persuade him to set a firm date for both congressional and presidential elections.

In a rare interview this summer, Pinochet flatly said he does not ''have confidence in orthodox democracy.'' Perhaps through those who surround him he can be convinced that it is in his long-term interest to slowly loosen again the reins of government and prepare to return to Chile the democracy that was once so strong there.

One small lever Washington does have is Chile's bilateral trade with the United States, in which Chile's largest export is copper.

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