``The best way not to achieve something [in Chile] is to press too much for it,'' says US Ambassador Harry Barnes of his experience with the country's authoritarian military regime. ``The perception of the influence of the United States is one I find quite exaggerated. From the standpoint of the opposition, it's `if only [the US would] do something more.' And those who support the government say that if we'd only stop doing what we're doing, everything would be OK,'' Ambassador Barnes said.
Barnes played down the role the US might have in influencing Chile's move to full democracy in recent talks to the University of Miami's Institute of Interamerican Studies, and to a journalists' workshop on Latin America sponsored by Florida International University and the Miami Herald.
The ambassador's appointment to the Chilean post in late 1985 marked a change in the US approach to the military regime. Barnes irritated President Augusto Pinochet Ugarte when he began criticizing the human rights situation, meeting with moderate opposition leaders, and voicing approval of the opposition goal of replacing the 1989 plebiscite with free elections.
The recent emergence of a single-issue political movement in Chile will help the badly-divided opposition mount a more effective campaign for a democratic transition, Barnes said. The new Movement for Free Elections was created in February with the sole aim of replacing the 1989 yes-no vote on a single candidate selected by the military junta with an open election.
``This one clear goal may help give a more united image'' to the democratic opposition, which has been fragmented in bickering factions, Barnes added.
The ambassador says US leverage is basically limited to economic sanctions, because the Pinochet regime doesn't respond much to the psychological leverage of, say, a UN censure.
Some Chileans see the possibility of a new form of US leverage with General Pinochet in the recent surrender to US justice officials of a former captain in the Chilean Army's intelligence agency. Armando Fern'andez Larios turned himself in as an accessory to the 1976 bombing murders of former Chilean ambassador to the US, Orlando Letelier, and an assistant.
Barnes refused to discuss details of the case, which is before a US federal judge, but he did say that Mr. Fern'andez Larios' decision to surrender and testify against other officers allegedly involved in the bombing is a sort of ``indictment'' of the Chilean Army.
The US will attempt to extradite the others involved and this could give the allegations a protracted and embarrassing airing before the Chilean public.
Barnes acknowledged Pinochet's recent reforms, which legalized political parties, allowed the return of some exiles, and broadened some freedoms of the press. But the ambassador criticized the 1980 Constitution, written to keep Pinochet in power until 1997, as a sort of loophole that undermines the latest reforms Pinochet touts.