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But Chilean Leader Slips in Polls : Combative Gen. Pinochet: Defeat Is Not in His Blood

Times Staff Writer

Candidate Augusto Pinochet bends down from the stage to touch the outstretched hands of admirers, then hugs two small children and a woman wearing leg braces who approach him on the dais. The 20,000 people in the stadium, brought by the busload to the provincial city of Talca, cheer his final words: “If I govern, you govern!”

This is the same Gen. Pinochet who has said that he loathes politicians and that hoary democracy frustrated his God-given mission to fight communism. As he once put it, “I am coming to you from above because God put me here, or providence or destiny.”

Despite his protestations that he is merely a soldier, Pinochet has proved to be a wily and tenacious political operator since a military coup against Marxist President Salvador Allende in 1973 placed him in power. Indeed, Pinochet’s life has been forged in the political arena as much as in the barracks.

Now, however, he may be on the verge of his worst miscalculation. Polls show him losing ground in Wednesday’s plebiscite on whether he should serve eight more years in office as Chile’s president, and opposition surveys suggest he might be trounced. The same unflinching will and combative style that ensured his rise to the top may be his downfall.

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Pinochet has always set goals and achieved them, using whatever means were needed, and defeat is not in his blood. Some Chileans wonder if he might find a way to hold onto power rather than accept rejection, but he insists he will accept the people’s verdict, delivered within the process his regime created.

At 72, he now campaigns as Chile’s hope for democracy, as the safe option for a stable future in the face of what his supporters deride as a leftist-controlled opposition.

Anti-communism came early to Pinochet. In 1948, he was put in command of a camp for Communists sent into internal exile at Iquique. He discussed politics with them and began to read communist theory to understand what he later called “a hypocritical and contaminating doctrine. . . . I realized, too, that an effective anti-communist struggle is unthinkable in the context of musty democratic patterns.”

Allende Visited Camp

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On one occasion, a delegation of legislators visited the camp. Among them was Allende, then a Socialist Party senator. Pinochet denied them entry and threatened to shoot if they advanced. They left. Pinochet said Allende never mentioned the incident, perhaps having confused him with another Gen. Pinochet.

Pinochet recalled in his 1982 book on the coup, “The Decisive Day,” that he had nonetheless expected his career to end after Allende’s election. He kept quiet, acted cautiously and nothing came of it.

That Pinochet even has a chance to win the yes-or-no ballot after 15 years of dictatorial rule testifies to his political skills, however ruthlessly applied.

As one Western diplomat put it, his campaign has sought to make the election a choice between Pinochet and Allende, who died during the bloody uprising. Pinochet appears mostly in a well-tailored business suit rather than a uniform. His campaign advertisements show realistically staged scenes of violence--supposedly what lies in Chile’s future if he loses and is denied a total of 24 years in power.

Access to Television

But for the first time since 1973, his opponents have had nearly unfettered access to television, even if only for 15 minutes a night. His supporters point to the equal television time as a sign of a democratic opening that they say Pinochet has fostered. Nevertheless, Chileans are now seeing images of the brutality and hardship from Pinochet’s tenure and are hearing a measured, moderate opposition appeal for a return to Chile’s traditional democracy.

His support may stem from genuine public appreciation for Chile’s relative stability and economic advances, or from fear and manipulation. Either way, this austere, sometimes vindictive man has survived through resolute willpower and a determination to balance, control or crush any rival forces that challenge him.

As a young man, he was twice rejected by the military academy, but he persisted and was finally admitted in 1932, finishing in the bottom half of his class.

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As president, he says he has survived a half a dozen assassination attempts. Some thought his days were numbered during an economic crisis and street protests earlier in this decade. He ignored hints from other members of the military junta that a civilian candidate might fare better in the current race, craving popular vindication of his rule.

Never ‘Imagined’ Being Leader

When he donned the presidential ribbon in 1974, the year after Allende was deposed, Pinochet said he had become Chile’s leader “without ever having imagined it, never mind wanting it.” But he also quickly made clear his belief that Chile would not be ready to return to democratic rule for many years to come and that he, not the four-man junta, was in charge.

Pinochet is among the few surviving figures from Allende’s 1970-73 government. As the country disintegrated into turmoil--speeded on its way, some say, by clandestine CIA activities--Allende appointed Pinochet commander in chief of the army on Aug. 23, 1973. Three weeks later, he led the army in an uprising that also included the navy, the air force and the national police. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, were killed in the coup and its immediate aftermath.

Pinochet says the coup saved Chile from becoming a second Cuba. Objecting to the opposition’s portrayal of him as a man who is comfortable only in conflict, Pinochet said the other day: “They deceive with words. Well, if they talk of war, that was what we avoided in 1973--a civil war.”

Retired air force Gen. Gustavo Leigh, one of the original coup plotters and junta members, said he was dismissed in 1978 because he urged Pinochet to call elections. Leigh, who has endorsed a coalition of 16 parties campaigning against Pinochet, said of the latter in a recent magazine interview:

“He is a hard man with a violent nature. It is very different to know him intimately than to see him now, disguised as the good grandfather. It is clear to me he is utterly violent (and) authoritarian.”

‘I’d Erase Them All’

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Leigh recalled asking Pinochet what he would do if thousands took to the streets and paralyzed the city.

“He said to me, full of fury and rage: ‘I’d erase them all. I’d kill thousands. It wouldn’t matter to me at all.’ ”

For Leigh, Pinochet’s worst crime is “attempting to convert the armed forces into a political party. For that reason, I am going to vote no.”

Before Pinochet, say his critics, Chile’s army probably was the least political and best trained in Latin America, and the police force was the least corrupt and best disciplined.

Pinochet’s supporters dismiss complaints by Leigh and other former allies of the regime as sour grapes. And his backers note that no one ever accused Pinochet of enriching himself in office.

Obsessed With Communism

Pinochet’s overriding obsession is to prevent communism. Thus, his government drafted a constitution in 1980 that permits the banning of “totalitarian” parties, under which the Communist Party and Marxist elements of Allende’s old Socialist Party have been proscribed.

The constitution also gives Pinochet another year in office even if he loses the plebiscite, and it allows him to stay on as army commander for up to eight years, ensuring that he will remain a powerful figure in Chilean life.

Pinochet had passing contacts with politicians many years ago. In the 1950s, he obtained a bachelor’s degree, taught at Chile’s War College and wrote books on geopolitics. He visited Washington and served three years in Ecuador. He then spent nearly a year as acting mayor of the province of Tarapaca, which brought him into close contact with the competing social forces there. He suppressed a student protest, only to be reprimanded from Santiago.

“This conniving and scheming attitude made me despise even more those politicians who were incapable of upholding the principle of authority,” Pinochet wrote.

The son of a customs clerk in the port city of Valparaiso, Pinochet married Lucia Uriart, the daughter of a prominent senator, and she has become a valuable political asset to him during his presidency. They have five children.

No Wavering

Alfonso Marquez de la Plata, Pinochet’s minister of labor, said Pinochet’s early experiences gave him a thorough understanding of Chile’s political life. But his military training also instilled an ability to make decision, and get them carried out, with no wavering.

“He is a very resolute person,” Marquez de la Plata said. “He doesn’t blow with the wind.”

“One of the greatest defects in the government’s campaign has been not showing the human facets of the president,” said Pablo Longueira, vice president of the Union of Democratic Independents, a strongly pro-Pinochet group. “He is very human, very friendly, very cultured. But that is not the image he has.”

Others are less generous.

Federico Willoughby, a conservative who was Pinochet’s press spokesman from the coup until 1976 and now supports the No campaign, described the general as “a person who fears things he cannot dominate.” He said that Pinochet trusts no one and never relies on a single adviser. Rather, he sets a goal, seeks out views from four or five people and then adopts an unbending course to achieve that aim.

“He has a great, strong will. That is his most developed characteristic, more than creative ability or acceptance of new situations,” Willoughby said.

Consults Zodiac Charts

Pinochet is superstitious, Willoughby said. He believes in lucky numbers--including 11, the day of the coup, and 5, the day of the vote--and consults zodiac charts. He also can become absorbed in details, Willoughby said, speculating that these days the president might be fussing about how distant relatives will get to the polls.

Pinochet’s allies contend that the president wants to hear critical comments. But deposed aides say that younger, subservient staffers now cater to him, telling him what he wants to hear: that he is popular and can win. Negative advice would have branded them dissidents, the former aides say.

“It is a war mentality,” Willoughby said. “You are with me or against me, you obey me or you are a traitor.”

Black Belt in Karate

Pinochet has immense drive and stamina. Up early, he exercises every morning and rarely drinks or smokes. He has a black belt in karate and has smashed bricks in public. He rarely seems to tire on the campaign trail.

His supporters find him humorous, especially in small gatherings, but publicly, his off-the-cuff humor can be nasty--for instance, calling a short opposition leader a dwarf.


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