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Rural Chile Leans Toward Pinochet--'the Devil We Know’

Times Staff Writer

Gen. Augusto Pinochet may be losing the battle for hearts and minds in Chile’s big cities, but he appears to have an abundance of friends in this handsome small town in Chile’s central valley.

An unscientific sampling of views on a recent visit found a solid majority opting for the stability that has evolved during the past 15 years of military rule led by Pinochet. Many townsfolk, chatting with a visitor, expressed fear that if Pinochet loses next month’s presidential plebiscite, Chile risks a return to the shortages, strikes and food lines of the last elected government from 1970-73.

Even in the poorer areas, where most people live in modest wooden homes and battle to get by on salaries as low as $2.50 a day, voters indicated a preference, as one put it, for “the devil we know.” Few here have been touched by the civil rights issues that arouse emotions in Santiago, the capital. Young people seem as likely as older adults to vote “yes” in the “yes” or “no” poll to decide whether the 72-year-old Pinochet should remain another eight years in power.

By contrast, Pinochet supporters seem to be scarce in the grimy working-class section of Santiago known as La Bandera, where residents tend to focus on the more recent past. One middle-aged man, an auto mechanic, pointed to a street corner and recalled, “That’s where they shot a young boy while he was buying cigarettes during a demonstration.”

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Allende’s Foes Blamed

At least for some La Bandera residents, memories of the years under Marxist President Salvador Allende, whose government Pinochet toppled in a 1973 coup, are distinctly less hostile. Many place the blame for the tumult of those years on Allende’s political foes, accusing them of manipulating strikes and unrest and then virtually inviting the military to intervene.

La Bandera residents also prefer to recall earlier, more stable democratic governments and the days when, they say, Chileans shared their wealth more equitably and enjoyed unfettered political liberties.

Such conflicting sentiments in rural and urban districts may play a critical role in determining the outcome of the Oct. 5 vote, in which a No victory would force multi-party elections by early 1990.

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Analysts on both sides acknowledge that Pinochet is ahead in rural areas and behind in the cities. The opposing camps are scrambling to fortify their strongholds and to minimize their losses in more hostile terrain.

The demographics emphasize the importance of the urban-rural divisions. Just over one-third of the population of 12 million lives in Santiago. Other regional cities bring the total of urban voters to about half of the 7.4 million registered voters. The other half is scattered among country districts.

Leaders of the coalition of 16 parties aligned in the No Command against Pinochet worry that rural voters are far more susceptible than city voters to government and employer pressure to vote Yes. Pro-Pinochet militants dismiss such charges as an attempt to explain away what they see as genuine and widespread support for the general in the countryside.

A government official, who asked not to be identified by name, said private polls conducted nationwide for the government indicated that Pinochet would lose Santiago by a margin of about 15% but that he would still win overall by 6% because of the rural vote.

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Surge in Exports

While Chilean public opinion polls must be viewed with caution, the trend cited by the official appeared justified in the cases of Los Andes and La Bandera.

In the mountain foothills, about 50 miles north of Santiago, Los Andes is caught up in a national rush to export. Along with a surge in grape and kiwi production, the district has benefited from a 50% rise in copper prices that has pushed export earnings to unprecedented levels.

Acres of new grape arbors and fruit orchards fill the rolling fields along the road into Los Andes, and residents say that fruit-packing companies are also expanding. The Plaza de Armas, the town’s central square, bustles with strolling families, and the surrounding shops are full of imported Japanese and Korean electronic goods. Los Andes is tranquil and healthy.

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Luisa Naranjo, 58, has graphic memories of the Allende days, when she got up at 4 a.m. to stand in line for five or six hours to buy milk or bread.

“We would have to be very forgetful to vote for the No,” she said from behind the counter of her small gift shop. “There was a lot of money, but what was there to buy?

“I have lived under every political system we have been through in this country. To experiment again? No!” she said.

An old man, leaning on his cane in a store, said he was voting Yes because Pinochet “is the only man who made this country work. No other president ever did so.”

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A young woman clerk in the store agreed, expressing precisely the sentiment that Pinochet’s campaign seeks to reinforce: “No one wants to return to those times,” she said.

Enrique Cueto, a 30-year-old accountant, was an exception, saying: “It was our generation that was killed and tortured. Young people want change.”

But he said the Yes vote would win easily in Los Andes, in part because half of the peasant farm workers “will vote Yes out of fear. This is Chile.”

The town has not entirely escaped the political uproar common in Santiago. On Aug. 30, the day Pinochet was nominated by the military, rival demonstrations were scheduled for the town square. The Yes rally took place as scheduled. At the same time, police rounded up 41 mainly young Pinochet opponents involved in the No rally, held them overnight and beat them, according to local No campaign organizers. They showed a visitor the charge sheet and photographs of welts on the buttocks of the victims.

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“These were acts of abuse to create fear among the people so they won’t oppose the government,” said Nelson Escobar, 37, a teacher who helps lead the No Command for Los Andes Province, where 45,000 votes are at stake.

He and colleagues said fear is a constant factor, especially among the poor, including farmhands who earn 600 pesos ($2.50) a day.

In door-to-door campaigning, “it takes up to half an hour of discussion with each person to get rid of his fear,” Escobar said. “It is a long and slow process. People have been told they will lose their jobs or their houses if they vote No. We are struggling to convince them that their vote will be secret.”

The government angrily denies any intimidation of voters and says that the secret ballot will be tamper-proof and monitored by both sides at each voting booth.

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But Escobar said people are suspicious; some think, for example, that the ballots will retain the fingerprints of those who mark the No column, exposing them to future reprisals.

Eduardo Jose Urbina, 42, a handyman, said he had heard that satellites might somehow record how people vote. He said he registered because he might be asked someday to produce his voter card.

In the Spartan living room of his tiny house in Los Andes’ poblacion or working-class residential district, Urbina said he would vote for Pinochet.

“Now there is work. If the No wins, there might be fighting,” he said. “We don’t know what will happen in the future if there is a change.”

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Several young people endorsed that view. Of eight young people relaxing under a tree in the poblacion, six were Yes voters and two were for the No.

“I prefer the devil I know to those I don’t know,” said Jesse Teijero, 23.

In urban La Bandera, there was far more sympathy for the No campaign’s argument that democratic rule, and its accompanying freedoms, need not mean a return to the chaos under Allende, nor renewed economic hardship.

Several voters said that an elected government would have to raise salaries and otherwise respond to the demands of the poor, while a military government was under no such pressure.

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$14-a-Month Pension

The auto mechanic, 52, who had pointed out the spot where a boy was shot to death during a demonstration said of the pre-coup shortages: “How did food reappear two or three days later (after the coup)? It was there all the time” but was withheld by Allende’s opponents, who wanted a military takeover.

The mechanic said he now receives 1,000 pesos (about $4) for a job that earned him 1,500 pesos ($6) 15 years ago. His pension from the national railroad pays him 3,512 pesos ($14) per month.

Down the unpaved street, a construction worker, also 52, was watering the dirt patch in front of his house, across the street from a wall bearing graffiti that proclaimed, “No to the Madman.” He said there may be work now for those who want it, but salaries are so low that “we can’t even manage to buy enough to eat. We don’t get anything from this government. Only the rich are benefiting.”

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His wife, who also declined to give her name, said: “In 1973, there were lines, yes, but at least there was money to buy things. Now there are things to buy but no money to buy them.”


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