Chilean Opposition Hoping for Boost from Pope’s Visit
SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) _ Opponents of Chile’s 13-year-old military regime hope the presence of Pope John Paul II this week will help them show the world the extent of oppression here, despite church appeals not to politicize the pontiff’s visit.
″We want to deliver our message that this country is not at peace,″ said Luis Morales, a community leader in a slum section of Santiago where the pope will address working-class Chileans.
Morales, who commented in an interview with The Associated Press, is one of several activists from leftist political, labor and community groups organizing demonstrations during John Paul’s five-day stay, which begins Wednesday.
They see the visit as an opportunity to press demands for an end to the right-wing government of President Augusto Pinochet and a speedy return to democracy.
The pontiff will spend three days in Santiago, starting Wednesday, and is to meet briefly with Pinochet, who is also the army commander, and lead masses and other gatherings of the faithful. John Paul will visit Uruguay before coming to Chile, and he will conclude his Latin American tour in Argentina.
After Santiago, the pope will spend two days on a whirlwind tour of Chile’s interior, from Punta Arenas near the windblown southern tip of the continent to Antofogasta in the arid, semi-tropical north of Chile.
Authorities have prohibited the display of political banners or posters at the papal gatherings. Top police officials have vowed to stifle any behavior they consider ″disrespectful.″
Even so, opposition activists say columns of anti-government demonstrators will attend the gatherings and will chant slogans and raise banners.
″The degree of respect (for the pope) is immense, but respect does not at all imply silence,″ said Javier Saez, a leader of a leftist umbrella organization of community groups in Santiago’s slums.
Local Roman Catholic church officials have harshly criticized the regime for violating human rights and restricting civil liberties. But they have also stressed that John Paul’s visit is purely pastoral.
″No one has the right to make use of the papal visit″ for political ends, declared the head of the country’s Conference of Bishops, Monsignor Bernardo Pinera.
His statement appeared directed not only at the opposition, but at the regime, which has stressed the pope’s mediation of a territorial dispute with Argentina. The dispute was resolved in a treaty, signed last year, that gave Chile title to three disputed islands in the Beagle Channel in the extreme south.
Government-posted billboards around the city proclaim the arrival of ″the arbiter of peace.″ The church’s publicity campaign here calls John Paul ″the messenger of life.″
The pope’s itinerary includes several stops with political overtones.
At a church-run shelter he plans to visit in Santiago, last-minute arrangements were made for the presence of 18-year-old Carmen Quintana, who was doused with gasoline and set afire, allegedly by army troops, during street demonstrations last July. Rodrigo Rojas, a 19-year-old Chilean-born U.S. resident who was set afire along with Miss Quintana, died of his burns a few days after the demonstration.
The church is also arranging for 25-year-old Nora Vargas, whose legs were blown off in a leftist terrorist bombing, to be present.
The pontiff is scheduled to address about 80,000 youths Thursday in the capital’s national soccer stadium, which was used as a holding pen and interrogation center for thousands of suspected leftists after Pinochet seized power in a blooody 1973 coup.
Human rights groups say several hundred suspected leftists were summarily executed in the days following the coup.
Also on Thursday, John Paul will speak to a gathering in the sprawling slum of La Bandera, one of several poor neighborhoods on the city’s outskirts where violent clashes with police and army troops have occurred during anti- government demonstrations.
In Antofogasta, the last stop before leaving for Argentina, John Paul plans to visit the city’s prison.
Nationwide, about 400 prisoners - many of them political detainees - are on a hunger strike to press demands for improved conditions. Four of the hunger strikers have been hospitalized as a result of their protest.