Is Chile going back to the death squads? Seven political opponents of the Pinochet regime were seized on the streets in broad daylight the other day. Three were found dead the next morning, their throats cut, and four were released, having been tortured. The government says it will use the police and courts to establish accountability. Let us see it. The sequence represented the most extreme case of evident official violence since President Augusto Pinochet, citing a resumption of guerrilla terror, broke off his tepid and unconvincing steps toward a transition to democratic rule and reintroduced a state of siege last November.
Nearly 15 years after Gen. Pinochet seized power, Chile is foundering. Even before last month's cruel earthquake, the Chilean "economic miracle," which was just the opposite of a miracle to the classes that paid for it, had long since yielded to pervasive hardship, depression, inflation and indebtedness. The official claim to build stability is best set against the 735 bombings reported last year, and the 84 complaints of torture.
President Pinochet has resisted legalizing the political parties, a key step in any transition to the elections he has promised for 1989. The suspicion persists that he is more interested in consolidating his and the military's position, perhaps to become an elected president himself, than in facilitating a credible transition.
Until last year, the Reagan administration felt that President Pinochet had gotten up enough economic and political momentum to warrant a certain optimism about Chile's likely passage from authoritarian to democratic ways. An American policy akin to the constructive engagement practiced in South Africa was still in favor.
Chile's and President Pinochet's backsliding, however, produced in Washington an inclination to help move the transition along by a greater display of impatience and resolve, at the Pentagon as well as at the State Department. The minimal purpose was to stave off further polarization and decay. The change in emphasis is being signaled by a change in ambassadors, from a conservative political appointee to a foreign service pro.
President Pinochet, an unlimber 68, says: security first, democracy second. His critics and many of Chile's American friends say: security and democracy at the same time. To proceed as he is, denying free expression, repressing and sometimes torturing his political foes, and cutting the lines between government and governed, is a "dangerous and volatile mixture" of policies. So says -- yes -- the Reagan administration. Is President Pinochet listening?