CHILE CONSIDERS FAR-SOUTH PORT ALONG THE STRAIT OF MAGELLAN CRITICS SAY PLAN IS POLITICAL

CHILE CONSIDERS FAR-SOUTH PORT ALONG THE STRAIT OF MAGELLAN CRITICS SAY PLAN IS POLITICAL

Punta Arenas, a sleepy fishing village fronting the cold, windy Strait of Magellan, could be transformed into a major commercial shipping center if Chile's new government pursues plans to construct a $25 million port there.

But critics charge that building a port so far south (less than 2,500 miles from the South Pole) is politically motivated and economically unjustified.As of the March 30 pre-qualification deadline, some 25 Chilean and foreign firms had already obtained technical information on the new port, to be called Bahia Catalina.

The winning company would get a concession to design, construct and operate the port for 50 years, after which time it would revert back to the Chilean government. If built, Bahia Catalina would be the southernmost commercial port in the world after the Argentine city of Ushuaia, about 100 miles to the southeast.

The military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet first proposed the Bahia Catalina project four years ago. Mr. Pinochet's successor, democratically elected President Patricio Aylwin, is supposed to decide on the matter sometime this month.

Fernando Klimpel, marketing manager of the Chilean Association of Salmon and Trout Producers, argues there is "a tremendous necessity" for an expanded port in Punta Arenas.

"There are a lot of vessels fishing for squid around the Falkland Islands. They need a high-sea port," he explained. "In addition to Chilean needs, there's an increasing amount of fishing fleets in the Atlantic without any big port. Before the opening of the Panama Canal, all sailing had to go through the Strait of Magellan."

In fact, Bahia Catalina is being portrayed as a possible alternative to the Panama Canal. According to the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio, the port would be able to handle two vessels measuring 152 meters long and 12 meters deep, as well as four other vessels measuring 90 meters apiece, and would have an annual capacity of 400,000 metric tons.

The current port in Punta Arenas is small and provides little more than a car and passenger ferry service across the Strait of Magellan to the island of Tierra del Fuego.

One high-ranking official in the Ministry of Public Works said the project is more political than practical.

"For years, people in Punta Arenas wanted a new port," said the official, who asked not to be named. "The port of Punta Arenas is economically not justifiable, though for political reasons, the previous government announced a decision to study it. There's also an element of international strategy because of three islands off Tierra del Fuego (which are disputed by Chile and Argentina, nearly sparking a war between the two countries in 1978)."

Last week, Argentine President Carlos Menem signed legislation upgrading Argentina's portion of Tierra del Fuego from territory to full-fledged province, with its capital at Ushuaia. The new province also incorporates the Falklands and other minor islands claimed by both Argentina and Great Britain.