You ask me if I would protest," says Alejandro, a university student here in Chile's southernmost city, once a center of radical political protest. "I can't imagine how to do that. My generation just isn't interested. We would have to learn."

Nine years ago, this ice-bound town was known as a militant stronghold of Salvador Allende's leftist regime. More than 60 percent of the population voted for his Popular Unity program. The university, the oil workers' union--one of the strongest and oldest in Chile--and the churches were all centers of ceaseless leftist activity.

That came to an abrupt halt on Sept. 11, 1973. In the most violent political episode in Chile's history, the armed forces overthrew the democratically elected government and installed Gen. Augusto Pinochet as the head of a three-man junta.

"Nearly every young person in southern Chile was arrested or questioned," a survivor of that period recalled. "Tanks opened fire on the factories where the unions were resisting."

Across the Strait of Magellan, on Dawson Island, Chile's most famous concentration camp came into being. Orlando Letelier, Allende's foreign minister killed in Washington by a terrorist bomb in 1976, was detained here. So was Luis Corvalan, the aging Communist Party chief. And the late Jose Toha, the Socialist minister of the interior.

"His hair turned completely white, and his beard grew down to his chest," a camp survivor remembered. "He wandered up and down the gallery in a daze. Every once in a while he would exclaim: 'This isn't really happening. This isn't real.' "

Today, Commandant Jorge Baleresque of the Navy's Third Zone relaxes in the port's 19th century Navy headquarters.

"We are doing better than a democracy," he says. "We are giving fundamental solutions to the problems of inefficiency and poverty that democracy just washes over. And now who's popular? Gen. Pinochet! Why, 75 percent of the population supports him to the death, because we have done more for the people than any socialist government."

Alejandro is a 23-year-old university student. He is not sure whether he supports the government, but most of the time he thinks he does not.

"I don't know much about politics," he explains. "My brother was in Fatherland and Freedom a rightist organization that backed the 1973 coup . My family was happy when the coup happened. There was too much disorder, too much craziness."

Earlier, he has talked fluidly about the poor quality of university education, the dismissal this year of almost 50 faculty members, the abolition in 1981 of free health care for students. Now he struggles to find words.

"I suppose you could say I'm against the regime, but I don't really know why," he says. "It's never done me any harm. But I'm for human rights, I guess."

Roberto, a former activist, finds this a far cry from the fiery university youth of his day. "I remember how we covered the walls of Santiago with posters," he says, his normally grave face shining. "Somebody in the student council would give the word and we would be off like a shot, painting walls and ducking the police."

Like 18 percent of the Chilean working population, Roberto is now jobless. Chile's economic shipwreck has been kind to Punta Arenas, where the nation's self-sustaining oil industry fuels some local well-being. But Lucho, a former Communist Party organizer and political prisoner, keeps a close watch on the poorer neighborhoods.

"Do you realize that my buddy took a census of his district the other day and found almost 80 percent of the people there out of work?" he asks.

Lucho, because of his politics, has been out of work for nine years. Formerly a prosperous businessman, he now survives on odd jobs.

Jose Ruiz de Giorgio, president of the local oil workers' union, is not any happier about the lot of the official labor sector. He is a Christian Democrat, and his party gave the military government tentative support as late as 1975.

"The same union leaders who traveled to Geneva in 1974 to defend the junta are now against it," he says. "The atrocities we have seen could not have been imagined in the Chile of the past."

Ruiz de Giorgio describes the destruction of labor rights, the persecution of leaders, the mysterious assassination in April of centrist labor leader Tucapel Jimenez. He gives figures on the economic crisis: unemployment officially at 18 percent, plus 4 percent for those included in the government unemployment-assistance program; construction at a standstill; industrial production down 14.9 percent from April of last year; government health and retirement programs closed down or shifted to the private sector; a trade deficit of $241 million through April this year.

"Of course, the government always points to the low rate of inflation as its great achievement," he adds. After years of failed efforts, the junta has reduced it virtually to nothing. In Allende's last year, inflation exceeded 300 percent.

"Frankly," Giorgio says, "I'd rather have a 10 percent inflation rate and more jobs than the massive firings and forced pay reductions we have now."

In Punta Arenas, dissatisfaction with the regime appears everywhere, fueled as much by ideological conviction as by the crisis of Chile's rigidly neo-liberal economic model. But a parallel movement is evident: growing conformity with the status quo.

The owner of a corner storefront puts on another sweater against the chill.

"Things are bad, but I hear they are bad everywhere," he says.. "In the time of Allende, inflation almost killed us. I didn't vote for him then. I wouldn't vote for him now. Maybe we're just stupid, ignorant. Or too nice. Governments always do what they want with us."

"We made so many mistakes," says Miguel, who did not give his real name. "We were and are sectarian unwilling to compromise politically .

"We refused to ally with the second largest political force in the country, the Christian Democrats, and yet we were playing at electoral politics. We let complete social chaos develop."