IT IS ONLY half true that the coup in Chile, 10 years ago today, ended Latin America's longest democratic tradition. The elected president, Salvador Allende, was already losing control of his government to Marxist revolutionaries who did not in the slightest share his democratic commitment. That is why, in the beginning, many Chileans applauded or at least accepted Gen. Augusto Pinochet's intervention. Alarmed by the disintegration around them, they counted on him to return their country to its heritage in a reasonable time.
What they did not count on was that he would abuse his patriotic mandate and thrust on Chile a regime that went far beyond dealing with the emergency at hand and established a harsh police state. Some tens of thousands of Chileans were killed outside the law, many others were imprisoned and exiled, the natural political tendencies of the country were suppressed, and an economic system was imposed that has meant extreme hardship for most of the people. For turning a national crisis into an excuse for personal dictatorship, Gen. Pinochet will not be forgiven. It explains why most of his countrymen, believing his continuance in power to be a national disgrace, have turned against him now.
Gen. Pinochet appears to think that by superficial concessions he can end the now-common mass demonstrations, still political unrest and prolong his power for another six years. Meanwhile, he has sent his police into action against demonstrators, peaceful as well as violent. The other day, the police fired a water cannon to block the delivery of a statement demanding his resignation by Christian Democratic leader Gabriel Valdes, who heads the newly organized Democratic Alliance of non-communist parties. Police also beat Genaro Arriagada, another leading Christian Democrat. And Gen. Pinochet wants to know why the opposition doubts his good faith.
Gen. Pinochet's days, it would appear, are numbered. His policies do not even command the full support of the armed forces. When he goes, it will be through the working of Chilean forces. It is encouraging, however, that the United States, while it is not driving events, has finally stepped back publicly from Gen. Pinochet and taken a position in favor of a prompt and peaceful return to democracy.
Unquestionably the Reagan administration, often criticized for tilting toward authoritarian regimes like Gen. Pinochet's, would dearly like to see a transition occur on its watch. It would allow the administration to come forward in Latin America and in general ideological debate as a sponsor of democracy. It would prove its point that authoritarian regimes, unlike totalitarian ones, can move back to democratic rule.
Such results, if they come, are unlikely to erase the widespread impression--much of it myth, Nathaniel Davis, then the American ambassador, suggests on the opposite page today--that it was the United States that undid the democratic order of Chile in 1973. We accept that the American role was secondary then; Chilean democracy was being grossly abused by Chileans. All the same, the United States made its own distinct and cynical contribution to Chile's breakdown. It would be deeply satisfying to see democracy restored in Chile now--and to see the United States cheering the process on.