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Chile: Stately Homes

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Pinochet is accused of fraud

For two years the activity went almost unnoticed. The government sold off parcels of dry, rocky land in Maipo Canyon, 50 miles southeast of Santiago, at reduced prices. One day the state began to improve an old road leading to the land; then a new road was built, a bridge appeared, and the state-owned TV network built a repeater antenna. It was no coincidence, say critics, that these improvements were made near El Melocoton (the Peach), the 29-acre estate owned by President Augusto Pinochet Ugarte.

Until this month, Pinochet was able to escape the displeasure of a populace increasingly disgruntled with his ten-year-old regime by slipping away on weekends to enjoy El Melocoton ‘s pools and gardens. But last week 24 opposition leaders accused Pinochet of defrauding the state of more than $40,000 by buying the land, then using at least $2 million in public funds to make improvements in the area.

Pinochet’s hideaway might have remained a secret if not for a blunder he made in defending another project. Since 1978 he has been building a lavish, $30 million, seven-story “House of the Presidents,” complete with high fences, a heliport, television surveillance and laser detectors, on a hillside overlooking Santiago. When the press began to criticize Pinochet for his extravagance, he said that he never intended to live there, even though his wife had chosen the furnishings. The only home he owned, Pinochet insisted, was El Melocoton, which he said he had bought with his own savings of $2,400.

Jorge Lavandero, a publisher and persistent critic of the regime, then compiled public documents that, he claimed, supported the opposition’s accusations. Before Lavandero could publish the evidence, he was ambushed by twelve unidentified men, dragged from his car and severely beaten. The attackers stole the documents, but the information found its way to the editors of four opposition magazines. To prevent its publication, the government reimposed blanket censor ship of the national press.

Pinochet has fiercely denied all the charges, and the army, whose support is es ential, has vowed to defend him until his term ends in 1989. Although there have been seven antigovernment demonstrations in the past year, resulting in the deaths of 78 people, even the thousands who took to the streets late last week in a general protest realize that until the key officers around Pinochet desert him, no scandal will shake his hold on the presidency.

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