SANTIAGO, CHILE -- Along the tree-lined paths and grassy fields of this city's La Quinta Normal park, lovers strolled one recent Sunday afternoon, children played ball, parents relaxed and the cares of the world kept a respectful distance.

It was a tranquil scene, as it often is on weekends there, a portrait of normality in a country generally portrayed as victimized by political violence, police brutality and dictatorial insensitivity.

For many, the park's order and calm offer a welcomed retreat. But for many, too, something is missing, something that was once very much a part of life in Chile.

"You used to see evidence of a democratic vitality here," said an accountant walking with his wife. "Banners of competing political parties would hang from the trees and leaflets would cover the ground. It was like a political carnival."

The memories are particularly vivid for Chileans because of the abruptness with which the 1973 coup severed the past from the present-day military regime. As Chile prepares for the possibility of a genuine return to democratic rule next year, individual memories give rise to contrasting hopes for the future.

While government loyalists argue the need to guard against a return to a Marxist state, or even the existence of a legalized communist party, many noncommunist Chileans feel excluded from political life today because they oppose the policies and methods of Chile's leader, Gen. Augusto Pinochet. They long for a revival of the pluralism and tolerance that once distinguished this country.

"One thing people feel nostalgic about are the days when Chile was a more tolerant society," said Efrain Friedmann, a businessman and former World Bank official. "Ideas could be discussed then, people could hold different opinions while still maintaining friendly relations."

Economically, some Chileans also miss the sense of being cared for that existed under the statist, assistance-oriented system of the past. Pinochet has replaced that system with a competitive, free-market model that subordinates collective social action and welfare assistance to individualism and private gain.

The change has invigorated the economy, enriched businessmen and propelled Chilean goods into foreign markets. But lower-income groups remember feeling better off, or at least more economically secure, under the old system.

"People used to be quicker to reach into their pockets for spare pesos," said Juan Gonzalez, who for three decades has been selling snacks and sweets at La Quinta Normal, a park surrounded by museums, university buildings and middle- to low-income housing. "They don't buy as much now. They don't have the money."

Memories of Chile as an exuberant, stimulating and open place have long since given way to views of it as a closed society troubled by fear, alienation and withdrawal.

"It's a different country today," said Sofia Salamovic, a psychiatrist. "People are more cautious now, full of distrust. You see it on buses, in public places."

Some Chileans have appreciated the discipline and efficiency imposed by the Pinochet regime. Many others here, though, find the regime's authoritarian manner and static view of society personally offensive and foreign to Chilean traditions of consensus politics and dynamic social development.

Frequently, too, the Pinochet government is blamed for exacerbating a political polarization that began under the Christian Democrats in the 1960s. "There's still public debate in Chile," noted Carlos Huneeus, a political scientist. "But not with those who make the decisions."

Government supporters say Chile's democratic tradition had to be interrupted to set the country right after Salvador Allende, a Marxist elected president in 1970, led it toward financial ruin and international communist alliances. He was overthrown and killed in September 1973 in a military coup backed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

"Naturally, if you get a human being that's ill, he will not be performing normally," said Miguel Schweitzer, a lawyer and former foreign minister under Pinochet. "Chile was politically sick. You cannot expect it to perform the same as before. But it has been improving."

Manuel Feliu, a business community leader, can reel off statistics recalling the hyperinflation, collapsing productivity and bulging public budget deficits of the Allende period as if it were yesterday.

"People had created a myth that the state could take care of all our needs," he said of that time. "It grew into a leviathan. We lost our sense of individual responsibility. The current government has taught us how to defend ourselves, how to achieve economic security through our own efforts. It has incorporated this country into the modern world."

Even opposition economists acknowledge the benefits of this transformation to a more market-oriented economy. But they say it was done too harshly and abruptly and has cost a loss of something that was integral to Chilean development in this century.

"There had been a long, gradual trend toward equality," said Alejandro Foxley, a leading economist and Christian Democrat. "From the 1920s to 1950s, the middle classes gained access to jobs, education and government. Starting in the late 1950s, peasants and workers were enfranchised through agrarian reform and labor legislation, and the welfare state expanded.

"After such a long cycle emphasizing the distribution of wealth," he went on, "it is a valid argument that this country had to place a new emphasis on strengthening the forces that create wealth. But we must now merge the idea of a strong private sector with the notion of equity, of a fair deal for labor. We must make the forces of dynamism consistent with those of cooperation and participation."

It is hard, though, to be an optimist in Chile. Many try not to hope for too much in order to avoid more disappointments.

A recently published study entitled "Chileans and Politics," which reviews opinion surveys taken over the past 30 years, concludes that Chileans are more critical of things now than they were before Pinochet took power. They are also more pessimistic about the future than they ever were under democracy, the book says.

Apathy prevails. It is particularly evident in the small percentage of Chileans (1.6 million out of 8 million potential voters) who have registered so far for a presidential plebiscite planned for next year. Contributing to the low registration rate are contradictory recommendations from opposition parties divided over whether to encourage participation in the single-candidate vote.

Perhaps Chile's greatest hope lies in its youth, those whose memories of the past hardly go beyond Pinochet and Allende. Unscarred by the traumas and tragedies their parents lived through, young people here tend to display more tolerance and a greater willingness to cooperate with one another. Many are keen on avoiding the mistakes of the past.

"When we talk of recovering democracy, it doesn't mean going back to what existed," said Yerko Ljubetic, a Christian Democratic youth leader. "We reject the idea of simply recuperating the Chile we had. The future will have to incorporate much of the experience of the past 14 years.

"How we do this is still uncertain," he added. "But it will have to be determined with the help of one thing we do insist on restoring: democratic coexistence."