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Chile's Democracy Dances Around an Ex-Dictator

Gen. Pinochet, once a ruthless leader, will retire as Army chief to be a senator-for-life.

When former military dictator Augusto Pinochet arrives to take his seat in Chile's Senate March 11, Roberto Uribe will be there - but it won't be to cheer the new senator on.

"A lot of Chileans want to send a big message of rejection of Pinochet, especially those of us who live with vivid reminders of what he stands for," says Mr. Uribe, raising hands with deformed knuckles and burn scars. They are souvenirs of the torture sessions he says he endured under the 1973-90 military dictatorship.

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The taxi driver, who asked that his name be changed, says his father died of heart failure during a similar "interrogation." "It is shameful for Chile that a decade after the return of democracy, this man will continue with a public role," he says. "It's not the image we want for our country."

Among the former Latin American dictatorships, Chile is unique in that - although Chileans cast their vote for democracy nine years ago- General Pinochet has managed to retain substantial power. It is one of the peculiarities of Chile's democratic transition that Pinochet will retire from his post as Army commander in chief and move directly into a special Senate seat that he was not elected to. There the controversial octogenarian will continue to act as a sort of lightning rod for debate about Chile's imperfect democracy, for what could be years to come.

Pinochet's "Senate seat for life" is guaranteed to him by the 1980 Constitution he put in place.

Designated senator

In addition to 38 elected senators, the Constitution calls for nine senators "designated" by the presidency and the Supreme Court, plus life senate seats for former presidents with at least six years in office. Pinochet proclaimed himself president in 1974.

Supporters of the provision say it is designed to guarantee Chile a certain stability and the guidance of the country's "wise men." It is also designed to keep Pinochet inside Chile's power equation. Perhaps a third of Chileans credit him with stabilizing the country - albeit with a bloody military coup - after the chaos of the presidency of Salvador Allende. Even some Chileans who wish Pinochet would simply retire give him positive marks for reforms that sowed the seeds of the country's strong, high-growth economy.

Blocking reform

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But detractors say the designated senators are really meant to impede constitutional reforms that might wrest more power from Chile's former military rulers and their right-wing supporters. Especially worrisome for Pinochet, critics say, is that a loss of power could pave the way for an investigation of military leaders responsible for human rights abuses during the dictatorship, when thousands of Chileans died or disappeared.

Pinochet fed such speculation when he recently said he was going to the Senate "to defend the work of the military regime and our people."

For some Chilean leaders, it is progress that Pinochet is at least stepping down as commander in chief. In a recent interview with the Santiago daily El Mercurio, Foreign Minister Jos Miguel Insulza said that "from an international perspective" the retirement is seen as "the end of [Chile's] transition," which he called "very important for Chile's image."

But he added that he opposes any designated senators, saying their existence "follows no democratic logic."

Others say Pinochet as senator is bad for Chile's image and bad for Chile's democracy, especially at a time when in other areas - reduction of poverty, education reforms - the country is recognized as a leader in Latin America.

For these critics, the presence of Pinochet in the Senate will serve as the principal reminder that Chile's transition is incomplete.

A fully democratic Chile?

"We are in a regime that is not fully democratic," says Christian Parker, a sociologist at the University of Santiago, "but one that because of our Constitution will be very difficult to reform."

That difficulty is what worries former Economic Development Minister Ren Abeliuc. Although he insists that to say Chile is not yet fully democratic is "a joke," he argues that the Constitution deflates democratic participation. "What worries me," he says, "is that people see a system they know is blocked.... They see Pinochet, who never received a vote from anyone, going to the Senate, and they lose interest."

Polls show that about 60 percent of Chileans don't want designated senators and don't want Pinochet in the Senate. This month's congressional elections showed a continuing rise in blank or nullified votes - to about 18 percent - which in a system where voting is required is taken as a form of protest or disgust.

At the same time, about 1.3 million of the roughly 8 million eligible voters simply chose not to register, a worrisome symptom President Eduardo Frei singled out in post-election remarks.

Venting their frustration over Pinochet's unelected Senate seat, some Chileans are suggesting that members of Congress take symbolic action.

Manuel Antonio Garretn, a Santiago sociologist, suggested in comments to the daily La Nacin that "democratic" members of Congress should abandon the Senate auditorium whenever Pinochet takes the floor.

Helps unite left

For the center-left coalition that has governed Chile since 1990, Pinochet is a uniting factor, some observers say. He serves as a reminder that a divided Chile can fall into authoritarianism.

And for the powerful conservative wing, Pinochet's presence has served as a comfort that has calmed what might have been more intense opposition to social change.

The taxi-driving Uribe says he sees no positive role for Pinochet. But he says any action on his part against the general and the system Pinochet bequeathed Chile stops at the protest he plans to join in March.

"Just as Cuba isn't going to change until Castro dies," he says. "I don't think things will finally change in Chile until after Pinochet."

Evolution of a Dictator

Sept. 11, 1973 The military, led by Gen.

Augusto Pinochet, violently overthrows the

elected Socialist-Communist government of President Salvador Allende. A junta campaign to "exterminate Marxism" results in tens of

thousands of opponents detained in prison camps, according to human rights officials. Continued repression through the 1980s leaves thousands of Chileans either killed or missing. Chile's government admits to 3,100 deaths; historians say it is probably far higher.

Dec. 17, 1974 General Pinochet declares

himself president.

Sept. 11, 1980 Chileans approve a new Constitution, which calls for nine

of 38 senators to be "designated" by institutions such as the presidency and the Supreme Court, plus a Senate seat-for-life for any former president with at least six years in office.

Oct. 4, 1988 Chileans reject a second eight-year term for Pinochet.

Dec. 14, 1989 Pinochet loses presidential elections to a civilian,

Christian-Democrat Patricio Aylwin, but he manages to remain Army


Dec. 3, 1993 A coalition leader, Christian-Democrat Eduardo Frei,

is elected president.

March 11, 1998 Pinochet is to step down as commander-in-chief and

take his seat in Congress as senator-for-life.

Source: The World Almanac, Political Handbook of the World

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