The 16-day hunger strike that sought to focus world attention on missing persons in Chile ended yesterday without achieving its main objective: getting the military government to accept responsibility for detaining and possibly killing hundreds of leftist political activists here since the 1973 coup.
The strikers, mostly the wives and mothers of the missing persons, called off their protest after the government of President Augusto Pinochet said it would provide information "in a short time" about the fates of each of the 618 persons listed as missing by the Vicariate, for Solidarity, the Catholic Church's human rigts organization here.
In the past, the government has promised to investigate the whereabouts of the missing persons, only to respond that the Directorate of National Intelligence (DINA), Chile's recently reorganized and renamed secret police, had never detained any of those on the Vicarate's list.
The government has repeatedly said publicly that the missing persons have either gone underground or have left Chile and are living in other countries under assumed names.
Underlying this position is the government's often-expressed belief that the missing-persons issue is part of a leftist conspiracy against the military, which overthrew the Marxist government of former president Salvador Allende almost five years ago.
Privately, persons close to the government and even some government officials have said that clearly some - but in their view not all - of those on the church's list were detained and probably killed by the DINA, which also is accused of having been responsible for the 1976 assassination in Washington of former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier.
The government's problem, according to those close to it, is that, after almost five years of denying any responsibility for the missing persons, it is politically difficult now to admit responsibility even for some of those on the Vicarate's list.
It is believed that after the 1973 coup, DINA undertook to rid the country of Communists, Socialists and other leftists who continued to work against the military government. Those listed as missing were never officially arrested but are said to have been taken from their homes and hiding places by DINA agents - never to be seen again.
Most of those listed as missing disappeared between 1973 and 1976. There have been no reported disappearances this year.
The hunger strike sought to focus world attention on the missing persons issue at this time because the relatives and their supporters sensed that the military government here has been weakened by revelations about its role in the Letelier case. They hoped that pressure within Chile and abroad would force the government to admit its responsibility for the missing persons. [In Washington, a State Department spokesman expressed concern for the missing Chileans.]
The government held firm, however, and the participants, after 16 days of fasting, agreed to "suspend" the demonstation yesterday after leaders of the Catholic Church said the government had promised to look into the issue once again.
Strikers claim a partial victory by saying that Chile's newspapers and other media had, for the first time, given prominent coverage to the missing persons issue.
It is considered significant here that El Mercurio, Chile's most influential newspaper and a strong backer of the military government, acknowledged during the strike that the missing-persons issue was real and that the government had at least some responsibility.
In addition to the attention the strike received inside Chile, groups initiated hunger strikes in the United States, Europe and Latin America.
For the past 10 days, Raul Cardinal Silva Henriquez, archbishop of Santiago, served as an unofficial mediator. His position was that he wanted to serve the humanitarian cause of the strikers without becoming involved in whatever political motivation they may have had in attempting to raise the missing-persons issue at this time.
On Tuesday, the cardinal met with Interior Minister Sergio Fernandez and then met with five bishops who compose the Catholic leadership. The bishops then issued a statement saying that for reasons of health - and the government's promise to investigate each case - the strikers should end their protest.
Just before the strike was broken off, about 500 university students demonstrated in support. Police broke it up, briefly detaining several dozen.