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PERSPECTIVE ON CHILE : A Belated Obituary With No End : The fate of 2,000 victims of Pinochet is finally told, and the country, newly free to speak, wonders what to say.

<i> Ariel Dorfman divides his time between his native country and Duke University, where he teaches literature. His latest book is "My House Is On Fire" (Penguin, 1990)</i>

Like so many countries emerging from a long and brutal dictatorship, Chile has to ask itself one basic question: how to ensure that the horrors perpetrated by the state against its citizens will never again be repeated.

It is a dangerous question.

One year ago, Gen. Augusto Pinochet reluctantly gave up power to the democratically elected government of President Patricio Aylwin. But the general is still commander in chief of the army, and his followers continue to wield great influence in key sectors of society. Any collective attempt to examine too closely the wounds inflicted on us over 17 years, or any demands that those who inflicted them be brought to justice, must take into account our former dictator’s threat that the day one of his men is touched, the rule of law in Chile will end. But pretending that those wounds do not exist, that they could not fester, is even greater. A people that does not hold accountable those who have acted outside the law is inviting those very men to exercise veto power over its destiny. A democracy that is perpetually afraid will be tempted to restrict liberty whenever there is a crisis. A country that is hiding the truth cannot possibly heal itself.

President Aylwin decided to risk that truth. This month, he made public several thousand pages of a report that his Commission for Truth and Reconciliation had developed over nine months of excruciating research. The commission’s mandate was to deal with only the worst cases of human-rights violations, the more than 2,000 victims who were killed or “disappeared” during the Pinochet years, and so it could not scrutinize the cases of hundreds of thousands of other victims, the tortured, exiled, jailed, beaten, raped, intimidated. Even so, the final report is an extraordinary indictment of the dictatorship’s cruelty, its systematic policy of terror, its incessant lies.

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The report has now been published, and the streets and cafes are abuzz with talk about it. People are shocked by the magnitude of the atrocities it has catalogued. They are relieved at being able to finally see in light of day the darkness that they have been living all these years. And they are wary of the consequences of what this fresh opening of old pain may bring to the country.

Much of what is in the report was already known to most Chileans, albeit in a fragmented version. Many of my countrymen risked their lives in order to denounce these abuses through the years, breaking the walls of silence with in which the government wanted to hide them. The report goes beyond those efforts, establishing the military’s desecration of Chile as an official truth in the public domain; it belongs to all and can be denied by none.

It is not enough that many of us knew that children were forced to watch their grandparents being tortured for days on end. It is indispensable that such trauma be confirmed by the state itself, validated as true by a commission of eight Chileans--four of whom one had been ardent supporters of Gen. Pinochet.

This report will shape the moral conscience of Chile for years to come. It cries out for the country to adhere to the sacred principle that total respect for human rights is the only way to unite all of us, left and right, and so all differences among us must be settled through peaceful means.

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And yet, much remains to be done. Most of the bodies of the men and women who were kidnaped or murdered have not been returned to their families, yet the men who executed them are free, living among us. The justices who refused habeas corpus for the innocent not only continue to sit on their warm benches; they also refuse to investigate any of the cases presented to them, claiming that Pinochet’s 1978 amnesty erases whatever crimes might have been committed. And there is, of course, the general himself. Can we expect him to be suddenly stricken by remorse, begging his victims’ forgiveness, offering to resign his command of the army as a gesture of repentance?

We should not concentrate too much on what finally happens to him, his accomplices and the cowardly justices. We should not forget that when a tragedy of such proportions devastates a nation, we are all, up to some point, responsible. A society is only as humane and decent and democratic as its people. Horrible things can be done to others only if enough people accept as normal a world where four men in a car without license plates can break down a neighbor’s door at 3 o’clock in the morning and carry him away.

What matters ultimately for Chile is not whether Pinochet resigns his post, but what we do with his legacy, with the persistent shadow and perverse shadow he casts on our land and our soul.

The challenge from now on is to try to build, to try to imagine, a world without him.

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