SANTIAGO, Chile — When Gen. Augusto Pinochet turned Chile's government over to elected civilians last March, few expected the feisty dictator to retreat permanently from the front lines of national power. And sure enough, true to form, Pinochet keeps returning to the political fray, showing up on front pages and television screens in his familiar white jacket with brass buttons and red trim.
He clings tenaciously to his remaining role as army commander in chief, using it to play power politics with a bold and cantankerous style that is all his own. Dramatic military gestures make it clear that the army stands firmly united behind Pinochet in the face of scandals involving his officers and his own children.
Everyone knows they can't be fired. The Communist Party calls his army a "parallel power" but proposes no radical action. Moderate political leaders urge prudence and caution.
And so, while Chile learns to live again in democracy, it also is learning once again to live with Pinochet, the ex-dictator who won't go away.
He is 75 years old now. His bristly mustache has turned white, his once-square shoulders slump and his heavy jowls sag.
Pinochet's iron will, however, seems as unyielding as ever, and his control over the army is currently unquestioned.
Some say he is a charismatic father figure to officers, as well as a symbol of what they view as the army's patriotic contribution to Chile during 16 1/2 years of military rule.
"They see him as a leader, a man of decision--here we say 'a man with pants,' " said retired Col. Cristian Labbe, a former Pinochet aide who remains close to the general.
In an interview, Labbe said Pinochet is a man of few words but a warm and jovial colleague who prizes loyalty. "He listens a lot. He is very loyal to his people."
As the army's commander in chief in 1973, newly appointed by then-President Salvador Allende, Pinochet led a bloody military coup that toppled Allende's coalition government of Socialists and Communists. Allende himself was killed during the overthrow.
In March, 1990, under a constitution drafted to his specifications, the general handed power over to President Patricio Aylwin's coalition government of Christian Democrats and Socialists.
The constitution permits Pinochet to remain in command of the army until 1997. He may not last that long, but for now he appears to be solidly entrenched.
A few months ago, it seemed to some that Pinochet's position was increasingly weak. New revelations and old charges of human rights violations under his regime were receiving massive publicity in the Chilean media, casting a harsh light on the Pinochet years.
At the same time, surfacing financial scandals raised serious questions about a widely held notion that the Pinochet government was--by Latin American standards, at least--relatively free of corruption.
All of this undermined remaining political support for Pinochet. He seemed isolated, vulnerable. There were rumors, reinforced by an anonymous letter signed "Members of the Army," that some officers wanted him to resign.
Last December, government officials say, Pinochet hinted through emissaries that he was willing to negotiate his retirement from the army. But army officers contend that it was Defense Minister Patricio Rojas who proposed Pinochet's resignation on Dec. 19.
Rojas has denied making that proposal, but Labbe insisted that it was an "ultimatum."
The same afternoon, Pinochet stunned the country by ordering all army units confined to barracks, a drastic alert measure usually taken only at moments of military emergency. He called it a routine exercise, but it was a clear warning.
"It meant that the army did not accept the ultimatum," Labbe said.
In the words of Sergio Bitar, secretary general of the socialist Party for Democracy in the governing coalition, Pinochet was saying: "I am prepared to go considerably further. Don't provoke me. Don't attack me."
"Pinochet was completely out of control that day," added Bitar, 50, who spent a year in a frigid island prison camp and 10 years in exile after Pinochet's coup.
A second warning came Jan. 8, when army generals issued a declaration of their "unrestricted loyalty" to Pinochet.
The statement warned that an "irresponsible and systematic" campaign of aggression against Pinochet was a "grave threat to national security."
Chilean analysts say a military coup is highly unlikely. But Bitar said secret messages from Pinochet associates have raised the threat of pocket revolts in army units, similar to those staged by rebellious officers in neighboring Argentina, if pressure on the general continues.
The financial scandal that has embarrassed Pinochet most directly involves his oldest son, Augusto Pinochet Hiriart, a private arms dealer. A congressional commission found that the army issued three checks to Pinochet Hiriart for a total of nearly $3 million in January, 1989.