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.