When Gen. Augusto Pinochet rose to power here a decade ago, Gonzalo (Payo) Grondona was a leftist folk singer. Rose Marie Graepp was a radio journalist. Ariel Dorfman was a respected writer. And Andres Zaldivar was a leading politician.

All of them were prominent members of the intellectual and political elite of this country. And although they had little in common, all were destined to spend the better part of a decade abroad. They were among Chile's tens of thousands of political exiles, severed from contact or influence in a society that Pinochet hoped to transform.

This month, all four are back in Santiago. They have come from East Germany, Mexico, the United States and Spain. Zaldivar has brought new ideology, Dorfman new books, Graepp new reporting theory and Grondona, "a crateful of new songs."

In the tumult of Chile's political crisis, the thousands of political exiles have often gone unnoticed. Now they are participating in a social reshaping that could be unique in the history of the country.

With the end of an unprecedented era of mass exile apparently approaching, Chile is experiencing a rediscovery. Since 1973, at least 10,000 people in virtually every social, political and cultural sector have been forcibly transplanted to more than 50 countries. Some estimates of the number of exiles, including those who were not formally expelled, range up to 200,000 in a country of 11.5 million population.

Now, as that elite slowly filters back, a new overlay of leadership colored by a decade of personal privation and international experience is mixing into professions and political parties long circumscribed by military tutelage.

"Pinochet committed an extraordinary error when he expelled us rather than killing us," said Dorfman, 41, who has lived the past three years in Bethesda. "For the first time, the civilian society of this country has been internationalized. There is an incredible process of cross-fertilization going on."

The integration of many of the returning exiles is already proving difficult. Opposition political parties have been forced to reorganize. Groups on the left have had to face the merger of internal and foreign-based leadership structures that have operated separately for years. Other professionals have found that a country willing to let them return is still not ready to give them jobs.

As Chile struggles over its political future, those returning appear to be having an influence. Returning politicians have reinforced an opposition alliance calling for Pinochet's resignation, and artists and writers have begun to test and sometimes stretch the limits of free expression.

The potential effect of the exiles' return has created a problem for Pinochet's struggling government. As part of a conciliatory policy meant to defuse a mass protest movement, authorities have authorized the entry of nearly 2,500 exiles since June and have pledged to consider allowing the rest to return, excluding only a short list of political terrorists.

And yet, the promised action has been paralyzed in recent weeks as governmental factions debate the effects of allowing so many potential opponents to return, according to well-informed sources. Still outside the country are the principal leaders of Chile's leftist parties, including top ministers of the Socialist-led government overturned by the military and the family of deposed president Salvador Allende.

People close to Pinochet have expressed unease over the activities of those that are back.

"People have arrived in the country with dislocated minds," said Lucia Pinochet, the president's wife, at a ceremony earlier this month. With them, she added, began "the violence, the chaos and the disorder in Chile."

So far, officials have appeared to authorize the return of only those political leaders unlikely to renew their activity or, in some cases, believed to be potentially helpful to the government.

A case in point is Zaldivar, 46, who has faced a common political difficulty in reentering the country. A lawyer, he emerged in the 1970s as a leader of the Christian Democratic Party and is now president of the international Christian Democractic Federation.

Exiled since 1980, Zaldivar has watched from Spain as his party has regrouped around former foreign minister Gabriel Valdes. When Zaldivar returned to a jubilant welcome in Santiago this month, he held no formal party position.

For weeks, government officials have quietly predicted that Zaldivar, often associated with the party's right wing, would divide the Christian Democrats. Some expected he could force the ouster of party president Valdes and moderate the party's insistence on Pinochet's resignation.

Until now, however, Zaldivar has shown little sign of living up to the predictions.

"There has been a campaign to provoke divisions in the opposition and particularly in the Christian Democrats," he said in a recent interview. "But they have been wrong in the diagnosis."

Zaldivar said he and other returning politicians have brought a new perspective from their years abroad.

"You learn in exile from what you live through in another country," he said. "You see how democracy has to be cared for. The whole Spanish process shows that you can establish a democratic process through a peaceful route.

It is not only in politics, however, that returning exiles have had to come to terms with new movements built while they were abroad. A new generation of Chilean musicians, artists and actors has emerged under military rule while hundreds of former standouts have pursued separate--and sometimes very different--careers abroad.

Payo Grondona, for example, helped build an internationally renowned and highly politicized folk music movement in Chile during the early 1970s known as "the new song." Now, as the first prominent performer to return, Grondona, 38, has found the movement replaced by 25-year-old musicians attuned to a "new singing." While the new groups also sing protest songs, most are not identified with specific politics or parties, as those in exile are.

Grondona has written new material and soon plans to record a record with one of the leading younger groups.

"I feel a part of both traditions now," he said. "I've had to rewrite songs to fit the local reality. But there is a sense of coming together. Everything is gradually reactivating, and there is a possibility to move into more of the activism of before."

In other sectors, however, the assimilation has not been as easy. In journalism, said Graepp, "the problem now is not the closing of the gap between exiles and those here, but freedom of expression. Until there is more liberty here, those coming back cannot even apply their new experience."

So far, Graepp, 39, has not found a job.

For Dorfman, the danger of the influx of exiles is that many activists may not find a place, and with the bitterness of the past, will only increase Chile's polarization.