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Augusto Pinochet
1915 -

Late on the night of October 16, 1998, history came full circle for former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. Awakened by two London plainclothes police officers, a dazed and drugged Pinochet found himself in a situation hauntingly familiar to the thousands of people his regime "disappeared" -- the practice of midnight arrest. During his 17 years in office, Pinochet ruled by murdering, torturing, and intimidating suspected leftists, though his presidency also aborted civil war in 1973 and founded one of Latin America's most prosperous economies. Pinochet still oversees much of Chilean politics as a watchful lifetime Senator, but he has traded his dark sunglasses and swarthy moustache for conservative business suits and a grandfatherly demeanour. At the ripe old age of 85, this controversial figure, who hoped to spend his remaining years clarifying his place in Chile's nationalist pantheon, stands to be judged by history.


Pinochet was born in Valparaiso on November 25, 1915, the first of three sons and three daughters of a pious middle-class trading family. He grew up largely apolitically despite the hasty exchanges of power that frequently shook his narrow nation, and his family and friends described him as a sensitive child who cried during scary movies and invoked the Catholic Church for help and advice. Uninterested in academics, Pinochet earned mediocre grades and was expelled from the San Rafael Seminary for naughtiness. He finished his schooling at the College of the Sacred Hearts in Valparaiso, where children of richer families attended school and where he likely felt ostracized.

Despite academic underachievement, Pinochet did not lack passion. From an early age, he aspired to join the military, an ambition that even his influential mother could not quell. The Chilean army derived its roots from Prussian training in the nineteenth century, and Pinochet, who always admired England because of its respect for rules, was doubtless attracted to the military because of its grey-clad, goose-stepping traditions. After awkward school years, Pinochet finally joined a group that drew its constituency from his middle-class background and shared his priority for rules over questions. In 1933 at 17, Pinochet finally joined the military as an officer cadet, in uniform at long last.

Pinochet spent the next 40 years climbing the army's hierarchy. In 1937 he graduated as an ensign assigned to the Chacabuco Regiment in Concepcion. Too busy enjoying the life of a young officer and acquiring military knowledge, Pinochet remained aloof to politics when the coalition leftist Popular Front under President Pedro Aguirre Cerda won the election in 1938. In 1943, Pinochet married Lucia Hiriart, a woman almost as strong as his mother, and welcomed the birth of Lucia, the first of five children -- three daughters and two sons. He quietly continued ascending the ranks of the military, building a career with several key accomplishments: becoming Second Lieutenant of the Maipo Regiment in 1939; entering the Academy of War in 1949; moving to the Rancagua Regiment in Arica as Major in 1953; and becoming Chief of Staff of the Second Division and Deputy Governor of Tarapaca Province in 1968. In the early 1970s, Pinochet's career moved past local postings into the national arena, skyrocketing from commander of the Santiago garrison in 1971 to Commander-in-Chief of the Army in 1973. In fact, Pinochet's rise was so studied and slow, and he remained so apolitical, that socialist President Salvador Allende himself promoted the future conservative to head the army, believing in Pinochet's trustworthiness.

In fact, everyone believed that Pinochet backed Allende's government, perhaps even Pinochet himself. Since Allende's election in 1970, Chile had teetered precariously on the edge of full-blown civil war. Allende's leftist platform, though certainly not Marxist, advocated nationalizing foreign-owned industry and rectifying Chile's gross economic disparity. Allende's rhetoric and the actions taken by his radical followers pushed the middle class into the hands of the wealthy. On the brink of class warfare, the truckers went on strike and radical rightists bombed power lines. Further polarizing the situation, the American government under Richard Nixon smuggled funds to the military for arms and anti-Allende propaganda. Yet the upstart Pinochet remained loyal. He had experienced just the break he had been hoping for under the new government, and he allegedly told Allende right before the coup, "President, be aware I am ready to lay down my life in defense of the constitutional government that you represent."

Allende appointed Pinochet Commander-in-Chief of the Army on August 23, 1973, but by September 8, Pinochet turned on Allende. Pinochet joined a four-man junta to overthrow the government, and by September 11 he assumed complete control of the group because he decided that such a volatile situation could be controlled only by one leader. Although Pinochet had not been particularly well known outside army ranks, no one within the military hierarchy questioned his control because he commanded the army, the largest, most powerful wing of the military and component of the junta. Early on the morning of September 11, the junta informed Allende that he must surrender to the police and army, who professed their intention to end Chile's chaos. Allende refused, and British-made warplanes bombed the presidential palace. Pinochet's treachery perhaps shocked Allende most, and in the first hours of the coup he believed that the junta had taken his general hostage. Once Pinochet's treason and the forces against the ousted leader became clear, Allende committed suicide, defending his socialist experiment. The motives for Pinochet's volte face remain mysterious. Some argue that he greedily recognized a chance for supreme power; others speculate that his rare blend of mental smallness and spiritual perversity convinced him that God ordained his take-over.

Most Chileans welcomed the junta and its goal of returning Chile to guarded democracy. In the end, the majority regretted their jubilation. Pinochet inaugurated a state of siege to be lifted infrequently over the next 17 years. Declaring himself President in 1974, he eliminated Congress, political parties, freedom of speech, habeas corpus, and trade unions. Pinochet founded the DINA (the National Intelligence Directorate) as his secret police, charged with ferreting out opposition and silencing the nation with intimidation. The reign of terror began immediately after the coup, interning and torturing thousands of dissidents in Santiago's soccer stadium. Although the 1970s witnessed the worst human rights abuses, Pinochet's government is charged with "disappearing" over three thousand citizens and causing thousands more to flee during his rule. While the United States initially backed Pinochet's takeover, after a series of prominent atrocities including the murder of former Allende ambassador to the U.S. Orlando Letelier and U.S. citizen Ronni Moffitt in Washington D.C., the international community cautiously removed support. Like the haze overhanging Pinochet's quick about-face, questions remain about the dictator's motives for ruling through terror. Some note a driving lust for power that Pinochet concealed well in the army, while apologists believe that Pinochet is at heart a nationalist, condoning one-man rule to return order.

Indeed, terror in Chile was complemented not just by order but also by an economic miracle that has lasted despite a few bouts of inflation. At the beginning of his tenure, Pinochet gave free reign to a group of economists called the Chicago boys, nicknamed because of their devotion to University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman's free-market theories. Although their practices increased the income disparity ratio in Chile, the Chicago boys achieved an annual economic growth rate of seven percent, a figure three times the overall Latin American average. By offering generous incentives to foreign investors and privatizing business, Pinochet's government transformed Chile into a modern land of plenty and boosted life expectancy, salaries, access to health services, and educational standards above those of any other Latin American country. Even today, conservatives around the world herald Pinochet's economic ends and ignore his means.

Pinochet is so controversial, and weighing his achievements against his atrocities proves so difficult, that nearly a third of his countrymen still revere him as a nationalist icon. So sure of their support, Pinochet called a plebiscite for the 1988 presidential election -- and lost. And even stranger, the dictator respected the vote and stepped down from the presidency in 1990. Yet politics in Chile remains under the watchful eye of the General. Although he relinquished his command of the army in 1998, he enjoys a lifetime Senate seat and frequently reminds the elected authorities of his lingering control. When his son Augusto's financial dealings were questioned in 1990, Pinochet expressed displeasure by sending troops into Santiago's streets. Maintaining democratic Senate proceedings in the presence of a former dictator seems like a sham, but Pinochet's efforts to participate in statecraft seem to show his desire to reinvent his image as a patriot in any capacity.

But just as Pinochet jettisoned dictatorship for democracy, international law reminded him and other nervous dictators that they will be held accountable for human rights violations. As he recovered from an operation on a herniated disc in a London clinic, Spanish authorities acting through Interpol issued a warrant for Pinochet's arrest on the charges of torturing and murdering Spanish citizens. Spain's case against Pinochet trudged slowly through the British court system until recently, first addressing the question of international legality and then moving on to charges of genocide, terrorism, murder, illegal detention, kidnapping, and torture. In April 2000, the courts ruled to send Pinochet back to Santiago on grounds of ill-health, but since his return his countrymen have debated trying him for crimes in his native country and have revoked his senatorial immunity. International law has yet to judge Pinochet, but the verdict he really worries about is history's -- will he be remembered as a nationalist saviour or a selfish murderer? Either way, he has managed a rare feat, and he awaits his judgment as a true anomaly, the first successful former dictator.


Augusto Pinochet Ugarte (born 1915) led the military movement of 1973 that toppled the elected Chilean government. An army general, he proceeded to govern in an authoritarian manner while attempting to rebuild the economy and permanently alter Chile's political system.

Augusto Pinochet Ugarte was born in the Chilean port city of Valparaiso on November 15, 1915. From his early years he aspired to a military career. Because of his small stature Pinochet was rejected twice by the National Military Academy before he matriculated at the Escuela Militar's four year officer training course in Santiago. He graduated in 1936 and was promoted to second lieutenant in 1938. He married Maria Lucia Hiriart and had three daughters and two sons.

During his early professional career Pinochet distinguished himself as a specialist in military geography and geopolitics. His 1968 book Geopolitica (Geopolitics) went through several editions. He also stood out as a student in the Infantry School, in the War Academy (staff school), and in other advanced courses. He held several staff and command posts during these years, posts which provided him with numerous contacts with other officers in the army, air force, navy, and carabineros (national police). Pinochet served on the Chilean military mission in Washington, D.C. in 1956. He taught at the Military School, at the War Academy, and at Ecuador's national war college in the 1950s and 1960s. It was during these early military years that he developed the ideals that guided his military career: patriotism, public service and respect for authority.

Early in his career, Pinochet was not interested in the political debates that dominated civilian society. A cousin said "his ideological orientation was an enigma. If he had any, he had not demonstrated publicly." By 1970, the year Salvador Allende Gossens was elected to the presidency, Pinochet had been promoted to division general - the highest rank in the Chilean army. In 1971 he became commandant of the Santiago garrison, one of the most sensitive and influential army assignments owing to the size of the garrison and to its location in the capital city. By this time Pinochet was firmly convinced that political demagoguery and Marxism were disruptive, hypocritical, and incompatible with, in his words, "the moral principles that should uphold society. … ." He traced his hostility to Marxism to events of the late 1930s, when Marxists participated vociferously in government, and to the Cold War years when the Chilean Communist Party was briefly outlawed. He also became skeptical of the ability of Chile's democratic system to withstand Marxism.

The 1970 presidential election confirmed his deep suspicions, for it gave power to the Marxist Allende despite the fact that he was a minority candidate. As garrison commandant Pinochet was an eyewitness to the social, economic, and political turbulence accompanying the Allende administration's efforts to turn Chile toward socialism through the control of national institutions. Outwardly he seemed to remain loyal to the legitimately elected government. When the army commander-in-chief, General Carlos Prats Gonzalez, became interior minister during a serious trucking strike of late 1972, Pinochet became acting commander-in-chief. He held this position again on the eve of the September 11, 1973 putsch.

On that day the armed forces seized power. Allende was killed in the presidential palace. Pinochet claimed that Allende committed suicide. That was refuted by Allende's widow and others who claim that Allende was murdered by Pinochet's troops. Pinochet became president of the Junta of Government, a body composed of military commanders-in-chief. A year later he became president of the Republic of Chile. His term of office was formally extended later through the adoption of a constitution giving him an eight-year term (1981-1989). Allende's loyalists tried to maintain resistance, but it proved costly. Over 1500 lives were lost by the end of the day. Fearful of internal resistance, the junta declared itself in a state of internal war. The U.S. CIA was instrumental in providing the junta with The White Book, a manual for executing a successful coup and caused hundreds to be beaten and tortured by the army and police.

From late 1973 until late 1976 the country was in an economic depression, the aftermath of Allende's policies and the economic pressures that had been applied by both foreigners and Chileans between 1970 and 1973. This was also a period of harsh authoritarian rule. Inflation was gradually reduced in the mid-1970s, and by 1978 Chileans, especially those of the middle and upper sectors, were talking of an "economic miracle" based on free enterprise, foreign loans, and "denationalization" of the economy. Pinochet's popularity peaked in 1978 when a plebiscite confirmed his leadership and policies - although a growing opposition denied the validity of the vote. In the early 1980s Chile suffered from the world recession, and the government resorted to stricter controls of the press, the exile of some dissidents, curfews, and repression characteristic of the early years of Pinochet's rule. At the same time he oversaw a shift in economic policy that revived the role of the state, which he and his supporters had blamed for Chile's misfortunes prior to 1973.

The supporters of Pinochet liked his role as Chile's strongman, the one figure capable of controlling the armed forces and the symbol of anti-Marxism. But he also became the figure toward whom a growing opposition (church leaders, labor, politicians, human rights advocates, leftists) directed its energies. The United States and other foreign governments were cautious in relations with his government. Through this period he maintained his resolute anti-Communism and showed an uncanny ability to survive politically in a country marked by unsolved economic and social problems. Pinochet was able to do this because of his own abilities, but also because of the strength of discipline in the military, the inability of opposition leaders to agree on policy, and the fear of many Chileans that alternatives would be worse than his authoritarianism.

These factors became subjects for increasing debate within the government, throughout Chile, and in the world press in 1983 when opposition leaders organized mass demonstrations against the regime's economic, political, and social programs. Beginning in May of that year miners, students, workers, and dissident political leaders took to the streets to register their discontent. Pinochet used armed force to quell the demonstrations, then began talks aimed at political compromise. When talks stalled he again used strong-arm tactics, claiming as usual that politicians and Marxists were to blame for Chile's problems.

In 1986 Pinochet survived an attempted assassination with only minor injuries. But the international outcry against his alleged violations of human rights continued to grow louder. The new constitution that had been seven years in the making was ratified by plebiscite in 1980. Even though it was approved, the election was declared a fraud. The constitution called for Pinochet to serve another eight years. This time actually permitted the opposition party to mount a successful campaign to remove him from office. The U.S. Congress financed $2 million worth of media consultants, poll judges and a parallel vote count to ensure a somewhat fair election. On October 5, 1989, 55% of the Chilean people voted to remove Pinochet from office. He was able to retain power until free elections installed a new president, Patricio Alwyn on March 5, 1990. Although he abdicated his title as president, Pinochet remained on as commander in chief of the army. After stepping down as president, Pinochet devoted himself to modernizing and computerizing his beloved army. Even at 80, he still saw himself as a force within Chilean society, very much in charge of the armed forces until his constitutionally forced retirement in March 1998.









This web page was last updated on: 15 December, 2008