From the Santiago offices of antigovernment magazines such as Hoy and Mensaje to the now-abandoned camp for political prisoners on the Pacific coast near Vina del Mar, there is evidence that Chile is emerging from its darkest days of repression and terror.

As recently as last summer, the military government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet was closing newspapers for criticizing the government, and Chileans still spoke in whispers when asked about almost anything other than the weather or where they planned to spend their vacations.

Today, much of that has changed. According to the Catholic Church's human rights organization, the Vicaria de la Solidaridad, there has not been a single case of a person mysteriously disappearing in over a year.

While Chileans still are sometimes arrested for illegal political activity, in most cases they are either promptly charged or released, instead of being held incommunicado for months, another change considered significant by the church and diplomatic observers.

Despite its continued international image as one of the world's most repressive military dictatorships, even the Pinochet government's harshest critics here admit that this is a far different country than it was.

"The feeling I have is that it is true that there has been a significant change," said Edgardo Boeninger, a former rector of the University of Chile and a man widely respected here for his unbending commitment to democracy. "There is a greater degree of freedom and personal security."

"Detentions are relatively infrequent," said one diplomat whose government monitors the human rights situation here very closely. "As a matter of practice, they are no longer torturing people, although there still may be some isolated cases.

"As far as I can see, there aren't going to be any more disappearances in this place as a matter of government policy."

While this diplomat, as well as Boeninger and Vicaria director Christian Precht, readily acknowledge that the human rights situation has greatly improved, all point out that the new de facto personal security has not been institutionalized in law. The mechanisms of repression still are available should Pinochet decide to reactivate them.

The government recently renewed the state of emergency that gives it extraordinary powers for six months. Although the dreaded security force DINA was abolished 18 months ago, secret police still exist, as do the now-vacant camps for political prisoners.

The Pinochet government remains unwilling to tolerate open opposition by the country's once strong political parties, even noncommunist, democratic ones such as former president Eduardo Frei's Christian Democrats.

While they cannot organize political rallies, individual Christian Democrats nevertheless now can write and say what they think without fear of arrest.

The press cannot criticize Pinochet personally or the armed forces directly, but it has been increasingly and, up to now, successfully bold in testing the limits of the new freedoms.

Revelations about the involvement of the Chilean secret police in the assassination of Orlando Letelier, a leading opponent-in-exile of the Pinochet regime until his murder in 1976 in Washington, have been staple fare for almost all newspapers and magazines here since last March.

More recently, the press has given full coverage to the discovery of more than 14 decomposed bodies found in a mine shaft at Lonquen, a majority of them now identified as persons listed with the Vicaria as having disappeared after the 1973 coup while in the custody of police or military officers.

The Pinochet government has consistently denied that it had anything to do with Letelier's assassination or has any responsibility for the more than 600 persons the church and the human rights groups say were taken away and murdered as part of the military's effort to destroy the leftist opposition.

Yet, it has made no effort to muzzle the press as it reports these developments.

Perhaps more indicative of the new government attitude than what appears in the press is the growing return to Chile of former supporters of Salvador Allende's Marxist government who went into exile after 1973. Most of these exiles feared for their lives during the months and years after the coup, as DINA rounded up those it believed held views dangerous to the right-wing dictatorship.

More and more of these exiles are returning home. They come quietly and are far more circumspect in acting on their political beliefs than before, but that does not mean their views have changed or that the military government does not know they are back in Chile. There seems to be a tacit understanding that those who return can stay without harassment if they do not cause "trouble."

The government, however, has not been very willing to allow the return of prominent socialist and communist political leaders in exile -- those who sought asylum in embassies here before leaving the country. Interior Minister Sergio Fernandez has said that the government may never allow these exiles to come back.

Chileans interviewed over the past monh attribute the changes, and hopes for the future, largely to international and domestic pressure as well as new civilian government minister, such as Foreign Minister Hernan Cubillos, who believe that the government must slowly restore liberty in preparation for an eventual return to civilian rule.

Following recent international labor union federation threats of a boycott of Chilean exports, the government has given local unions -- traditional sources of political influence and power here -- expanded rights. Unions will be able to meet without prior clearance, the government has said, and a dues checkoff system will be implemented.

Later this year, the government has promised a new labor code that will allow strikes, under certain limited conditions, for the first time since the coup.

Pinochet has been forced to reduce represssion, some opponents say, because of pressures like the threatened boycott and the refusal of many countries to sell arms to Chile during its tense border dispute with Argentina last year.

Others say that civilians such as Cubillos realized that foreign investment in Chile has lagged because of the country's abysmal human rights image. Cubillos has argued, to some extent successfully, according to several sources, that Chile's image would not improve until there were real and sustained changes within the country.

Some cite what they call Chile's basic democratic character and a realization within the military, on whome Pinochet depends for support, that a liberalization was necessary to preserve the basic outlines of the authoritarian government and avoid massive unrest.

According to this view, Chileans were prepared to accept extraordinary measures following the chaos that existed toward the end of Allende's government but were unwilling to accept the same restrictions on their liberty once the "threat" of communism had clearly subsided.

Boeninger and other democratic leaders here feel that the government deliberately has allowed critical publications and groups such as the Committee of 24, now preparing an alternative constitution to the one Pinochet is having written, to operate as long as they do not reach average, working-class Chileans. But even in the working-class neighborhoods that ring Santiago, Catholic priests who live among the poor say that the situation is better than it was.

The Rev. Tom Connally, an American priest working and living in the parish of San Luis de Huerchuraba, said that he had reason to believe that police informers regularly attended his Sunday masses until not long ago. When they did, he said, he felt inhibited from going beyond what the bishops said about human rights or economic conditions in the country.

"Now we feel we can say pretty much what we want." Father Connally said,

Pinochet's supporters say that the president recognizes that he will not live forever and sees his mission as providing the basis for a return to civilian rule within some sort of democratic framework. His decision, to ease up, they maintain, was based on an improving economy and a belief that the military government still has substantial support.

Whatever the case, Pinochet over the past year has installed a group of young and dynamic civilian ministers, such as Cubillos at foreign affairs, Jose Pinera at the Labor Ministry, Miguel Kast at the Planning Ministry, and Gonzal Vial at the Ministry of Education, who are far more responsive to democratic values than were their predecessors.

It is not that Pinochet's civilian Cabinet menbers are necessarily closet democrats trying to he said. It is simply that they are young -- Pinera and Kast are 30 years old -- and, if not politically ambitious, are at least aware that they will have to live in society, outside the bearracks, when the military government ends.

When that will be and under what circumstances is the issue at the fore-front of Chilean political life. The constitution Pinochet is having drawn up -- and which he has said he will ask the country's citizens to approve by plebiscite -- would provide for a transition period that would maintain his power until 1985 or 1986.

Opponents argue that another seven years of dictatorship would be intolerable even if the worst of the repression has ended.

Boeninger believes that any attempt to force a new constitution by downgrading the role of the parties and the unions, as Pinochet's constitution would do, is doomed to failure. But for Pinochet to abandon his constitution, which is nearly finished, would "invoke the possibility that the government would have to bargain with its opponents," Boeninger said, "which it is not yet prepared to do. I perceive the situation at present as one of open spaces in which the government still believes it can keep control."

"Let's say that, as in a game of chess, there is no longer just one player. There is more than one player, that's certainly so," Boeninger said, adding that he could not predict how the current debate over the future will be resolved "because that's speculation. But the changes that have occurred are facts."