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COLUMN ONE : Chile Road Opens Up Frontier : Gen. Pinochet's 14-year highway project is nearly completed. A virgin land of wealth and opportunity is being opened to a new generation of pioneers.

February 19, 1990|JAMES F. SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PUERTO PUYUHUAPI, Chile — Chileans long believed that the southern border of civilization in their string bean-shaped land was the port city of Puerto Montt, even though one-third of the nation lies farther south.

The relative handful of settlers in this neglected region, however, viewed their desolate, majestic territory as South America's last frontier. A land that naturalist Charles Darwin called the "sad solitudes" was a potential source of wealth and prosperity, ready to be conquered, developed and colonized.

If only there were a road.

For decades, successive civilian governments toyed with the idea. All were daunted by the staggering cost and technical challenge of a road that would traverse the Andes Mountains, the world's deepest fiords, icy lakes, dense rain forests and vast glaciers. There weren't many votes in it. A region of about 54,000 square miles contained fewer than 70,000 of Chile's 12.5 million people.

Soon after he came to power after a bloody coup in 1973, Gen. Augusto Pinochet resolved to build that road. His government embarked on a project, now in its 14th year, to build not only a north-south highway, the spinal column, but also 800 miles of east-west branch roads from the highway to Argentina and the sea--a 1,545-mile transport skeleton ready to take life in Chile's future.

When Pinochet hands over the presidential sash to his elected successor March 11, he will have overseen the construction of all but the southernmost 120 miles of the north-south road linking Puerto Montt to the western Patagonian village of Villa O'Higgins. Most of the side roads have also been completed.

Despite its unwieldy and grandiose name, the President Pinochet Longitudinal Southern Highway is a gravel, one-lane path for virtually all of its 745 grueling miles.

But in many ways, the utilitarian highway accurately reflects the achievements, style and philosophy of Pinochet's 16 years of military rule. It is the acknowledged public-works magnum opus of a government that likes to boast that it built rather than talked.

Already, the project is beginning to yield dividends, bringing new settlers who are harvesting fish, timber and minerals, in keeping with Pinochet's emphasis on exports to foster growth. Chilean backpackers and bicyclists, and a growing number of foreign tourists, also are making pilgrimages through a newly accessible landscape of extraordinary beauty as well as future bounty.

In the heart of Southern Highway country, the 74-year-old general was defeated in a 1988 plebiscite in which he sought another eight years in office, and his candidate was beaten there in last December's presidential election. Even here, Chileans chastised Pinochet for years of repression and the sacrifices his policies demanded of working people, while the well-to-do flourished.

But even his foes acknowledge that the highway is a technical marvel and a visionary venture, certain to justify its $102-million cost in decades to come.

"Too many people say Pinochet was all good or all bad," said Alan Vasquez Chavez, a resident of Las Juntas, one of the thriving new communities that have grown up along the highway.

He counts himself a Pinochet opponent "for what happened up north," but "in my judgment, one of the greatest achievements of Pinochet was to open up this whole new country. He granted it the importance it deserved; others didn't see it. These people had quite a futuristic vision."

Vasquez represents one of the vanguard groups in southern Chile. He left his finance job in Santiago, the capital, four years ago, brought all his savings south to the village at the junction of three rivers and last year opened an attractive complex of chalets for travelers. The town has doubled in population, from 1,000 to more than 2,000, since the highway reached La Junta in 1983.

"Building the road was like hitting a newborn on the back, allowing him to cry and begin to live and grow," said Vasquez, who is president of the town's neighbor association.

Like a number of young professionals who have arrived in recent years, he said he came because "here one is more creative, not a machine to earn and spend money and be dead inside. . . . This is a new land, with a different mentality from the rest of the country."

Asked if he considered himself a colonist, he replied, "No, a pioneer. A colonist is someone who is given land. We are doing this ourselves."

The benefits reach beyond the upscale newcomers to some of the original, poorer pioneers of past decades who struggled to subsist with a few cattle.

Sergio Andres Jara, 34, had spent his years clearing fields around the few houses that make up Santa Lucia. His father came to the area 40 years ago from the north. When the road arrived, the path opened for forestry. With his in-laws he built an ingenious water-powered sawmill that cuts the tall, native trees into lumber.

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