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Helms the Spoiler

July 15, 1986

Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) is far removed from mainstream political thinking in this country. But Helms chairs a key committee that lets him do damage to U.S. interests in Latin America, as he did recently in Mexico and is now doing in Chile.

During a visit to South America last week, Helms praised the oppressive and increasingly unpopular government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Insisting that Chile is "one of the three countries in the hemisphere that is resisting communism," Helms said that the State Department should stop pressuring Pinochet to restore democracy. Normally it would be easy to laugh off such ignorant views, but Helms is the chairman of the Senate's subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs, and his comments came at a sensitive time in U.S.-Chilean relations.

Helms was in Chile a few days after a general strike that was designed to express public unhappiness with the Pinochet regime--a protest marked by government repression. Eight people were killed during the strike, among them a U.S. resident who eyewitnesses said was burned to death by Chilean soldiers. The State Department has demanded a full investigation, and the matter is being closely watched by opponents of Pinochet as a sign of U.S. commitment to human rights in Chile.

The day after Helms spoke out, Pinochet said he was convinced that his government had popular support and merited another eight-year presidential term starting in 1989. Pinochet's moderate opponents hoped that would be when the aging, imperious general could be persuaded to step down, beginning a peaceful transition to democracy. But now Pinochet seems determined to stay, and he will use the encouragement of friends like Helms to justify his continued dictatorship.

The Reagan Administration must make it clear that Helms does not speak for it on Chile. The recent U.S. policy of quiet pressure and indirect criticism must give way to a forthright and firm denunciation of the last important dictator in Latin America.

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