THE gulf between the Reagan administration and the Pinochet regime in Chile is growing. There can be no mistaking Washington's mounting unhappiness over the brutal repression launched by Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte's government in recent months. United States officials are not only publicly stating their concern about developments in Chile but also making open contact with many Chileans who oppose General Pinochet.
This latter step is a clear signal of US displeasure with General Pinochet. It further suggests Washington's decision to do what it can to get the transition to democracy in Chile moving again - a move incidently that even General Pinochet once promised. This latest emphasis of US policy is correct.
Obviously, Washington would like to hold him to that promise. But General Pinochet now shows no signs of moving in that direction. On the contrary, he seems determined to stay in power until 1989 - at least - and to use whatever means are necessary to ensure that goal.
US options are limited. Past pressures on General Pinochet have proved particularly ineffective. The Carter administration's public criticism of the Pinochet regime for human rights violations in the late 1970s did not result in the desired improvement in human rights. Some argue that repression in Chile actually grew during those years of criticism.
Moreover, General Pinochet seems to regard US criticism as largely irrelevant - an irritant that he has to live with, but one he can generally ignore. As a nation, Chile has a tradition of going it alone, often being a bit aloof from its neighbors in Latin America and quite distant from the United States. Trends elsewhere in the hemisphere are frequently ignored in Chile. The current move toward democracy, noticeable in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, has certainly not caught on in Chile.
But the Chilean people are essentially democratic. This may be the most hopeful element in the Chilean story. Before General Pinochet seized power 11 years ago, Chile had enjoyed long decades of democratic rule with the military remaining in the barracks. That tradition has not been lost. But it needs encouragement. Despite the limits on US leverage, the Reagan administration would be well advised to continue publicly making signs of its displeasure with the course of events in Chile and, within the limits of diplomacy, encouraging the opposition to General Pinochet. Other steps are available. One is the suspension of the limited US economic aid, promising to restore it only when there is clear movement by the Pinochet government toward democracy.