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Chile's generals on the skids?

Military leaders worry that, with Pinochet gone, they will lose power as in other former dictatorships.

In a testimonial letter that Augusto Pinochet sent to the Chilean people from his detention in London last Friday, the former military dictator says his 17-year regime saved Chile from the threat of international communism and concludes: "The soldier is always looking to protect his countrymen."

What General Pinochet's 13-page letter doesn't state so pointedly is that, like a true battlefield leader, the retired commander of the Chilean armed forces and instigator of a 1973 coup against a Marxist-Socialist government is also looking to protect his troops.

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With the international controversy over the Pinochet regime's human rights record calling into question the role of Chile's armed forces as never before, Pinochet and other military leaders want to make sure this questioning does not turn into an assault. Any end to the tacit agreement between the government and the Army not to "reopen the past" could clear the way for court cases that might land serving and retired military men in prison. But it could also precipitate a weakening of the privileged status Chile's military enjoys within the country's democratic system.

The Pinochet case is also making waves in other South American countries with military regimes in their past, particularly in Argentina where the cinders of pending human rights cases have been revived by the winds from next door. A crucial difference is that while Argentina's military has been a subordinate institution within the country's democracy for nearly a decade, the Chilean armed forces are still in a transition from ruler to subordinate that they don't want to accelerate.

"[In Chile] the armed forces are a very real political power that has yet to bow fully to civilian rule," says Rosendo Fraga, a military analyst in Buenos Aires. In Argentina's case, "they are fully subordinate to civilian rule."

The central worry for the Chilean military, he adds, is that Pinochet's detention might open the way to a "revision of the actions of the military government ... and produce in Chile the kind of trials against military officials that occurred in Argentina" in the 1980s.

To meet military's conditions

"As long as the conditions of transition imposed by the armed forces are respected - the central point of which is no reopening of the past - there will be neither military crisis nor political reaction" by Chile's military, Mr. Fraga says.

The nearly two-month-long crisis began when a Spanish judge investigating the deaths of Spanish citizens under the Pinochet regime submitted an extradition request to Britain, where the lifetime senator was undergoing medical treatment. The Spanish request was approved by the British government Wednesday. Pinochet's next appearance before a British court is set for Jan. 18.

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Since the October detention, Chile's military has confined itself mostly to expressing support for the government of President Eduardo Frei. Despite its many differences with the right-wing opposition embodied by Pinochet, the coalition government - which includes the no-longer-Marxist Socialists - has energetically condemned Pinochet's detention as contrary to principles of territorial jurisdiction and diplomatic immunity.

Pinochet is a lifetime senator under terms of the Constitution approved under his government in 1980 - a Constitution the Frei government has tried unsuccessfully to rid of its vestiges from the military government.

The Constitution created a national security council that brings together government ministers and heads of the armed forces for periodic consultations and in moments of national crisis. The council met Friday and reviewed measures reducing to a bare minimum all diplomatic exchange with Britain and Spain.

Most television news programs and newspapers showed images of the commanders of the four branches of the armed forces arriving together at the government palace - images that some political analysts say remind Chileans of the military's weight in their country.

"There has been an evolution within the armed forces" over the past few years, says Christian Parker Gumucio, a sociologist with the University of Santiago's Institute of Advanced Studies. "But that doesn't mean they are completely democratic armed forces or fully subordinate to the government," he adds. "There are still many antidemocratic forces inside."

Some analysts have noted that the military has shown fewer signs of restlessness over the Pinochet case than three years ago when the former head of Chile's secret police under the military regime, Manuel Contreras, was jailed.

A tenser situation

"That situation was much more tense because the government and the armed forces were opposed and there was a real confrontation," says Francisco Rojas Aravena, a Santiago political analyst.

But the Contreras resolution was also accepted by the military as an exception, others say. "As soon as the Chilean armed forces realized [Contreras] was an isolated case that wasn't leading to something broader, tension fell," says Fraga.

"[Contreras] was an internal case where the army knew its rumblings had an important impact, but in the Pinochet case, no," adds Mr. Parker. "They know that even veiled threats of a coup wouldn't influence London."

As an example of the military's continuing oversized role in Chile, observers note that the armed forces retain an overriding role in any human rights cases involving the military. The result is that cases either advance very slowly or are dismissed as invalid under the country's current amnesty law.

"If a case involves the military," Parker says, "it ends up on hold or with a declaration stating evidence of human rights violations does not exist."

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