WHEN HE reluctantly surrendered the presidency to an elected civilian in March 1990, Gen. Augusto Pinochet seemed certain to retain a commanding voice in Chilean politics. Nearly 17 years of military dictatorship had ended, but Pinochet's hand-crafted 1980 constitution assured him a lifetime senate seat and, more important, control of the armed forces until 1998.
One year later, however, Pinochet's power is wilting. And the worst fears for Chile's rebuilt democracy are fading.
The new president, long-time Pinochet foe Patricio Aylwin, has won broad popular support with his moderate policies and no-nonsense style. A series of scandals involving members of Pinochet's family and inner circle, meanwhile, has shaken and discredited the 75-year-old general. The release last month of a government-commissioned report detailing the massive human rights violations carried out by the old regime capped a year which, to the surprise and relief of many, saw the former dictator shunted toward the margins of political influence.
Pinochet's power, ironically, has been undercut in large part by his own grim legacy. The brutal military regime killed thousands following the U.S.-backed 1973 coup in which Pinochet ousted President Salvador Allende, a freely elected Marxist. Even many Pinochet supporters were appalled last year when the new government unearthed a Pinochet-era mass grave, then another -- and another. Last month's so-called "Truth and Reconciliation Report" documented some 2,000 murders and "disappearances" carried out by Pinochet's security forces.
The details of these findings provoke horror, yet the extent of Pinochet's repression already was widely known. More recent allegations of corruption, though less shocking, have proved equally damaging to the general's prestige.
On-going investigations into illicit financial enterprises run by army officers during the last years of Pinochet's reign, for example, have forced the retirement of several of Pinochet's men. Even more embarrassing was the disclosure that army personnel apparently dealt weapons to the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front, Chile's main communist guerrilla group which in 1986 had tried to assassinate then-president Pinochet.
These revelations place the army chief in a position similar to President Reagan's after the Iran-contra affair. If Pinochet knew about the illegal dealings, he should have stopped them. And if he didn't know, the questions is: why not?
Compounding these troubles are allegations of financial impropriety within Pinochet's own family. A son and a daughter each have been implicated in separate dealings involving several million dollars in ill-gotten funds.
Aylwin, well aware of the threat posed by a powerful Pinochet, has dealt sternly and tactfully with his political adversary. Building on Chile's long democratic tradition (the country enjoyed more than 40 years of democracy immediately prior to the '73 coup), as well as on its relatively healthy economy (the sole positive legacy of the Pinochet era), Aylwin has solidified his position by undertaking new initiatives on a number of fronts, including relations with the United States.
American free-trade talks with Mexico have gotten all the press, but Santiago and Washington quietly are moving toward a similar agreement -- an important step since the United States is Chile's main trading partner. Chilean officials predict total exports will grow by 20 percent a year in the coming decade.
Aylwin also has shown resolve in military affairs by removing the national police force from military control and exerting his authority in matters such as army promotions. Although he apparently will respect a 1978 Pinochet decree granting amnesty to soldiers for human rights crimes committed during the worst periods of repression, Aylwin pushed ahead with the Truth and Reconciliation report. Despite Pinochet's objections, Chileans and the world will know the truth about the dark days of the mid-1970s.
Publication of the report had been anticipated as the first major test of the nascent administration. The assassination four weeks later of conservative senator Jaime Guzman, a former Pinochet adviser, spurred charges that Aylwin was "soft on terrorism," making this critical period even more delicate. If Pinochet, pushed onto the defensive by the recent scandals, had any inclination to launch a last-gasp coup, now seemingly would be the time.
Fortunately, Chilean democracy has remained strong. Aylwin recently embarked on a three-week European tour, which underscored his confidence in his government's stability. Aylwin recognizes a fact that Pinochet, too, surely knows: An attempted coup would win scant support, even among Pinochet's own troops.
It is likely, in fact, that after the political tensions stemming from the Guzman murder abate, the commanders of Chile's air force and navy will ask Pinochet to step down as commander-in-chief -- a request senior defense officials reportedly made last December. Perhaps next time, the once-invincible dictator will not refuse.
TTC Paul Kantz teaches international relations at Yale and is an adjunct scholar with the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs.