SANTIAGO, Chile -- Juan Francisco Fresno, the cardinal who played a key role in efforts to restore democracy in Chile during the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, died Thursday night of kidney failure, Roman Catholic Church authorities said. He was 90.
Cardinal Fresno retired in 1989 after leading the Santiago Archdiocese for six years, a period in which he hosted a visit by Pope John Paul II and promoted the first contacts between the Pinochet regime and the opposition seeking to restore civilian rule.
The pope's visit in 1987 was during a time of political tension, as the military regime that had ruled for 14 years faced an increasingly strong and bold opposition.
Soldiers and police suppressed street demonstrations, leaving scores of victims. A Mass celebrated by the pope and attended by nearly half a million people at a Santiago park ended in clouds of tear gas as police broke up an anti-Pinochet demonstration.
Cardinal Fresno was born in Santiago on July 26, 1914, into an upper-class family. He was ordained in 1937, and in 1958, Pope Pius XII named him the bishop of the newly created Copiapo Diocese, in the heart of Chile's mining region. He presided over Chile's Bishops Conference in the 1970s.
In 1983, Cardinal Fresno was named by the pope to succeed Cardinal Raul Silva, who had displeased the Pinochet regime for years with his strong defense of human rights and appeals for democracy. ''Our prayers have been heard," Pinochet's wife, Lucia Hiriart, said when Cardinal Fresno's name was announced as the new leader of the Catholic Church in Chile.
Cardinal Fresno quickly and openly made contact with opposition leaders, however, and persuaded them to unite in a prodemocracy effort that included Marxists and right-wingers. He then promoted their first tense contacts with the government.
The result, in 1985, was a concrete plan for gradual transition to democracy, but Fresno was not allowed to deliver a document outlining the plan to the presidential palace. Eventually, at least in part due to the opposition unity that Cardinal Fresno promoted, Pinochet was forced to call a referendum on his presidency, which he lost Oct. 5, 1988. He had to call an open election Dec. 11, 1990, bringing the restoration of civilian rule.