HERE IS AN instructive sequence for you: In three successive years while the junta in Chile tightened its grip, the United Nations General Assembly condemned it. In the fourth year, just completed, the junta began loosening its grip, and the Assembly, ever loyal to the rituals of the left, still condemned it. The United States, for the first time, joined the pack. An infuriated (and clever) President Pinochet promptly called a snap plebiscite to capitalize on his people's aroused disgust. In their first chance to vote in four years, Chileans were asked "in the face of international aggression" to support President Pinochet and "reaffirm" the legitimacy of his regime. They did so, 3 to 1. At once he announced he would hold no more elections for 10 years.

Now, some comfort is being drawn from the fact that in the 13-day campaign for the plebiscite, the junta permitted limited, but what was for it unprecedented, latitude to its opponents. And those who see internal dissension as the junta's likeliest undoing note with satisfaction that the three other leaders of the junta objected to the way the plebiscite was staged. Actually, however, the plebiscite played right into President Pinochet's hands. He converted the nationalism stirred by the United Nations' unsophisticated rebuke into personal political coin. His critics' contention that the plebiscite was largely a government-manipulated exercise has had to vie against the junta's claim that the vote represented a mandate for its emphasis on stability and order. The United States, which halted arms sales and development support last year and thereby yielded the chance to use the annual negotiations on these items for political leverage, had to content itself with complaining that the plebiscite was unfair.

This is all a pity. As relieved as many Chileans may be to leave behind the chaos of the last Allende days, we cannot believe they wholeheartedly embrace a regime that has brought great suffering on the people and alienated Chile from many of its traditional friends. If the junta has taken some tentative moderate steps in the last year, it still enforces a harsh state of siege. Indeed, it seems not only harsh but also gratuitous. President Pinochet may now be tempted to interpret the plebiscite in the spirit of his recent boast -- "my pants are wired on with steel" -- and to crack down harder. But by his own logic he could just as well conclude that his people's loyalty permits him to ignore the United Nations and to continue the relaxation begun last year.