if and when Clarín appears on the streets again, it will face an uphill battle to survive in Chile’s homogenous media climate. Three other newspaper startups have tried and failed since the return of democracy to break the domination of the two media companies that publish El Mercurio and La Tercera, which account for about 90 percent of newspaper circulation and advertising in print media. None was able to attract advertising from Chile’s conservative business community. Three other weekly political magazines that had survived, with international funding, during the waning years of the Pinochet dictatorship collapsed for lack of advertising in the first years of democracy.

The government has proclaimed a policy of nonintervention regarding the media, but in Chile the government has never been a passive actor on the country’s media stage. In fact, the government still owns the newspaper La Nación, a money-losing relic from the early part of the last century when state media were in vogue in Latin America. And La Nación, with a minuscule circulation and very little journalistic credibility because of its government ties, has been one of the factors preventing any new paper from surviving financially.

It certainly was a factor in the most recent failure of Diario Siete, which folded in June 2006 even though it had earned respect for its tough investigative reporting. ”We knew there wouldn’t be many private ads,”editor Mónica González says. ”The businessmen in Chile are the most ideologically rigid in the continent.”

Instead, according to the paper’s confidential business plan and three inside sources, the success of Siete depended on the promise by President Lagos to finally close La Nación as a daily newspaper, thus freeing up its ample government and institutional advertising for the privately run Siete. When Lagos left office in March 2006 without following through on the promise, Siete’s financial backers–many of them prominent Concertación political figures–pulled the plug.

As for Victor Pey, he is allowing himself some optimism, now that the judges are finally writing a decision, that ”white smoke”may soon appear. Still, he is at a loss, as are many in Chile, to explain the resistance to his project. ”You have to introduce one thing into your thinking, and that is there is someone in whose interest it is that Clarín not come out,”he told me.

If it were just the money, to follow this line of thinking, the logical course would be for the government to simply offer Pey less. But the government’s actions–especially in paying rival claimants in the midst of litigation with Pey–suggest more complicated motives at work. The theory I heard most often, from journalists and political operatives, points to the overweening power of El Mercurio and the economic forces with which it is allied. They are resigned to not winning elections, the theory goes, but have forged a bargain with the government in which it does not encroach on El Mercurio’s journalistic and economic power, and El Mercurio in turn keeps its coverage of the Concertación critical but respectful. Unspoken–but evident in the tone of both El Mercurio and La Tercera–is a commitment to refrain from the kind of savage anti-leftist media campaigns that were instrumental in goading the military to action in the past.

It makes sense in some ways, but I can’t bring myself to buy such a tidy conspiracy; besides, it’s hard to imagine a return to political violence in the country that has become a model of stability and prosperity in the region. Still, I can’t ignore the blatant faintheartedness displayed by various Concertación governments when the political right has turned up the heat, as it did when the Clarín claim came to light.

For Concertación officials, Clarín is the devil they don’t know, a potential menace to a comfortable modus vivendi. However favorable and professional Pey promises it will be in its reincarnation, Clarín is not seen as a political asset, much less an ally for the government coalition. It was, and would be, they fear, the paper of extremes, the scandal sheet everybody remembers either loving or hating. Perhaps in the minds of Chile’s cautious politicians–who are more interested in economics these days than ideology–there is the fear that Clarín’s existence, even its support, will produce an unwanted flashback to the bad old days of polarization and bombast that once led Chile to tragedy.

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John Dinges is the co-founder of the investigative journalism center CIPERchile.cl in Santiago, Chile. He has written three books about military dictatorships and human rights in Latin America. The most recent is The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents. He is a professor of journalism at Columbia University.