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Dictator's Shadow Lingers in Chile

EDUARDO FREI'S victory in the Dec. 11 presidential election in Chile continues the journey away from the military rule of the past toward a democratic future. But in Chile, the past is not the past.

It has been a mere four years since Augusto Pinochet stepped down from the presidency that he had occupied since the brutal 1973 coup. The present governmental structure, grounded in the military-drafted constitution, has an eight-year presidential term - appropriate for a dictator, but widely regarded by Chileans as unacceptable for a democratic president. Through direct appointment and manipulation of electoral rules, the military assured a sympathetic senate majority.

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The power of the military raises serious concerns about the durability of democratic government - a historical problem for most Latin American countries. In 1973 the military responded to a perceived crisis when it had little history in the governing of Chile. Today, it has a significant institutional role and a recent historical experience of intervention.

It is undeniable that the civilians have created a political space and that civil society has been reconstructed. But there remains a component of denial in the way the country runs its affairs. Civilian politicians do their business, in apparent freedom, but with the knowledge that the military is watching closely.

For the greater part of the military years, the parties did not operate and leadership recruitment was disrupted. Understandably in this election, the two major coalitions relied upon ``name brands.'' Arturo Alessandri, grandson and nephew of former presidents, carried the banner for the Union for the Progress of Chile, a center-right coalition. The victorious Eduardo Frei, the son of former President Eduardo Frei (1964-70), benefited from even greater name recognition. Pundits said he had two advantages in the election: his first and second name.

At the same time, the election was significantly different from previous ones when parties from across the political spectrum fiercely competed for the majority. Mr. Alessandri and Frei are reminiscent of Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Both candidates pledged to continue the policies of the outgoing Aylwin administration, which represents a sharp contrast to the 1958-70 period when policies lurched from a conservative administration to a liberal one to a socialist one.

A major inheritance of the Pinochet years to the present decisionmakers is the commitment to free-market economics. Mr. Pinochet privatized hundreds of companies, removed protectionist policies and positioned Chile to compete in the world market. Today, with the passage of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the impending expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Chile looks forward to continued economic growth through trade.

Yet free trade will not solve all of Chile's economic problems. Despite its aggressive free-market policies of almost 20 years, in a population of 13 million, four million Chileans do not have adequate income to satisfy basic needs with their own resources.

While many Chileans will insist that their history is one of democracy and that Pinochet's years were a temporary departure, today democracy carries the scars of those years. The military was not discredited and removed from office as it was in Argentina. Rather, it wrote the rules for the transition to civilian government, granting itself amnesty for all human rights violations committed during its reign. Chileans live with a form of democracy more secure than it was four years ago but constricted in fundamental ways. As a Chilean public servant said, ``democracy is not what it used to be.''

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President-elect Frei promises to continue to institutionalize civilian control over the military and to address the economic conditions that have condemned nearly one-third of the nation to a dehumanizing existence. Historically, a dominant military and persistent poverty have undermined stability in the region.

Chileans have prided themselves on how they were different from ``banana republics'' in Latin America. The process now under way will determine whether they have grounds for such a claim, or if they have joined the ranks of their neighbors. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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