Beleaguered by political unrest for much of the last two years, President Augusto Pinochet has smothered his opposition with strong repressive measures and appears ready to remain in control for years to come.
Visitors to the presidential palace say the 69-year-old army commander is vigorous, good-humored and confident, even euphoric, about his dominance in Chile, the traditionally democratic nation he has now ruled longer than any other man.
Since muzzling the press and banning political activity with a state of siege in November, public criticism of him has all but vanished. Leftist movements have gone underground and attempts to renew large anti-government protests have failed.
As military rulers worn down by economic failure give way to elected civilians in Uruguay and Brazil, the general in command here since a 1973 coup insists on obedience to his own constitution, prolonging his mandate to the end of this decade.
Longer Rule Expected
Though he hasn't said so, many political analysts and Chileans who know Pinochet say they believe that he seeks to rule even longer and that his crackdown will hinder the emergence of any civilian rival for the military junta's choice of the next president, scheduled for 1989.
Pinochet ratified his authoritarian course in mid-February by ousting Sergio Onofre Jarpa, the politically seasoned Cabinet chief who had tried for 18 months to build support for a transition to civilian government by 1989. He was replaced by a political novice.
The change alienated conservative parties, Roman Catholic bishops and the U.S. government, all backers of Jarpa's liberalization. But even those critics concede that Pinochet's growing isolation has not undermined his solid base of armed forces support.
Army troops have backed frequent police raids of entire shantytowns that are leftist strongholds--even during these normally relaxed summer months of the Southern Hemisphere. More than 15,000 people have been arrested under the state of siege and 687 banished to internal exile.
After closing six opposition magazines, the government put financial pressure on a major newspaper, La Tercera, which is deeply indebted to state banks, to have its editor fired for publishing criticism of the regime. Censorship has kept remarks by the Catholic archbishop out of print.
"Pinochet's actions have sobered people about his determination to do things his way," said a diplomat who has met with a broad spectrum of Chile's civilian elite and commented only on condition of anonymity. "They are all frustrated over how to deal with him."
The general's durability has reinforced a view in Washington that direct pressure will not move him. To hammer the point, Pinochet bluntly told Langhorne A. Motley, the visiting U.S. undersecretary of state: "You have come to inspect me. I do not accept inspectors."
Motley ended a three-day visit Feb. 20 by softening the Reagan Administration's public tone on Chile--voicing "more interest than concern" about events here--and indicating there would be no new U.S. sanctions against the regime.
Pinochet survived a cutoff of U.S. arms sales and economic aid in the late 1970s--a protest against his police methods--then rode a wave of prosperity to win voter approval of his 1980 consitution. His strongest challenge came from within, after the debt-burdened economy plunged 14% in 1982 and stagnated throughout 1983.
The elite Copper Workers Confederation called the first "Day of National Protest" in May, 1983, bringing hundreds of thousands of Chileans into the streets each month to bang cooking pots. Six non-Marxist parties formed a center-left Democratic Alliance and demanded the president's resignation.
Political analysts say Pinochet survived that threat largely because of the monolithic loyalty of his 53,000-man army, which, as an institution, he has kept out of the divisive task of governing.
But the protest movement foundered on its own divisions soon after Jarpa became interior minister in August, 1983. He permitted open activity by a Marxist coalition like the one elected behind President Salvador Allende in 1970 and toppled in the 1973 coup.
Democratic Alliance leaders now admit the subsequent upsurge of Marxist-led agitation in the slums ringing Santiago was skillfully exploited by Jarpa and Pinochet to dampen unrest by wealthy and middle-class Chileans fearful of a return to Allende-style socialism.
"Pinochet has dangerously isolated himself from civilian society, but as long as the civilians remain so divided over what they propose for the country, the armed forces will not feel threatened," said Genaro Arriagada, a Christian Democratic leader.
Meanwhile, Jarpa made key alliances with restive truckers, farmers and labor unions to keep them aloof from the protests. With the resources of Chile's 6% economic growth last year, wages were raised and debts to state banks rolled over.
Eventually, Communist Party calls for violent insurrection, followed by 735 bombings around the country last year, helped Pinochet win approval for the state of siege by the navy and air force commanders, who had openly favored liberalization.
The clampdown brought outcries not only from the opposition parties that long have denounced the arbitrary arrest, torture and exile of dissidents, but also from leading conservatives who defended such repression until their own voices were silenced.
"We backed the 1973 coup so the military could strengthen democratic institutions Allende destroyed, not so it could build a permanent authoritarian regime," said Federico Willoughby, a former Pinochet spokesman who now leads the Democratic National Action group.
Such conservative parties are reluctant, however, to make common cause with the Democratic Alliance, much less with the Marxist left.
Long State of Siege
Francisco Cuadra, Pinochet's current spokesman and chief censor, argues that Chile can live with a long state of siege, as guerrilla-besieged Colombia has for most of the time since 1948.
"Chileans are far more concerned about economic problems," he said. "The government can wear itself out by failing to solve the economic problem but not by maintaining a state of siege."
The new interior minister, Ricardo Garcia, has given priority to renewing Jarpa's ties with unions and small business groups while ignoring politicians. But his resources are limited.
The government is targeting a 4% expansion of the economy this year, but that depends on the foreign banks' willingness to lend at least $800 million and roll over principal payments due in 1985 on Chile's $20-billion foreign debt.
The most optimistic private economists foresee a 1% growth rate and little decline in the 14% unemployment rate.
Ricardo Lagos, head of a moderate Socialist faction, admits the economy will have to get much worse before the opposition can mobilize popular unrest as it did in 1983. But he says it is far better organized today, though its activities are hidden.