Iconic dictator led ’73 Chilean coup
Augusto Pinochet, the embodiment of the brutal and intensely anti-communist South American military dictator, died Sunday, a military doctor said. He was 91 and had suffered a heart attack a week earlier.
Pinochet ruled this Andean nation for 17 years after seizing power in 1973 in a coup that toppled leftist President Salvador Allende. He gave up control in 1990, retiring to a presumed impunity, but he spent the last years of his life fighting charges of human rights abuses and corruption.
Pinochet’s coup, which led to the deaths or disappearances of about 3,200 people and the torture of thousands more, is widely regarded as a watershed event in recent Latin American history. The military takeover, experts generally agree, was a dramatic example of how unwilling South American elites were to allow left-wing governments to come to power, even by election.
In an era when Latin America was a raging Cold War battleground and Fidel Castro’s Cuba was seen as fomenting revolution, those elites gathered support from allies in Washington.
Thousands of once-classified U.S. documents released in recent years showed that the Nixon administration, through the CIA and other means, worked secretly to undermine Allende’s elected government.
Pinochet denied any foreign involvement in the coup, declaring: “I never had contact with any American. I swear by the memory of my parents.”
But in 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell acknowledged a U.S. role in destabilizing Allende’s government. “It is not a part of our country’s history that we are proud of,” he said.
Other military governments in the region, such as the junta that ruled Argentina, were bloodier than the Chilean dictator’s regime. But Pinochet’s dominating public persona and his seeming contempt for Chile’s venerable democratic traditions marked him as a central figure among Latin America’s late-20th century despots.
Pinochet’s regime pioneered the use of “disappearance” as a tool of repression, refusing to acknowledge the detention of executed prisoners.
The dictator’s much-feared secret police also organized assassinations against dissidents abroad, including a car bombing in Washington on Sept. 21, 1976, that killed Orlando Letelier, Chile’s former foreign minister, and an American colleague, Ronni Moffitt.
In recent years, the human rights and corruption charges, as well as his detention for nearly 17 months in Britain, had chipped away at the retired general’s aura of steely invincibility.
Although still admired by those who credited him with jump-starting Chile’s economic growth, the aging and frail strongman had become somewhat of an embarrassment for a nation that has long taken pride in being more economically advanced and committed to social justice than many of its neighbors.
Reports that Pinochet had stashed away as much as $28 million in secret offshore accounts during his rule alienated even his stalwart supporters. At the time of his final illness, Pinochet was facing fraud and tax evasion charges in connection with the money, which first came to light at U.S. congressional hearings in 2004.
No event marked the exorcising of Chile’s authoritarian ghosts more than the election in January of President Michelle Bachelet, a lifelong socialist and former political prisoner exiled during the Pinochet regime.
Among the human rights cases that were pending here against Pinochet was one involving dozens of alleged abuses at Villa Grimaldi, a former torture center outside the capital where the young Bachelet and her mother were held before being allowed to leave Chile.
Bachelet’s father, Alberto Bachelet, an air force general deemed a traitor by the military because he aided the Allende government, was arrested and tortured by Pinochet’s forces after the coup. He died of a heart attack while in custody, and his daughter blames his death on the abuse he endured.
As president, Bachelet has cultivated warm relations with the military and has been applauded for her attempts at national reconciliation.
‘I love my fatherland’
On Nov. 25, Pinochet celebrated his 91st birthday with a statement accepting “political responsibility” for acts committed during his rule. But the long-unrepentant general did not explicitly accept legal responsibility, and declared that his aim had been to avert the “disintegration” of Chile, the latest version of an oft-repeated justification for his actions.
“Today, close to the end of my days, I want to make it clear that I hold no rancor toward anybody, that I love my fatherland above all else,” Pinochet said in the statement.
Pinochet’s death sent thousands of supporters and critics into the streets of Santiago, the capital, some uncorking bottles of champagne in celebration of the general’s demise.
As night fell, police and anti-Pinochet celebrators clashed near the presidential palace. Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the revelers, who started bonfires and tossed bottles at police. The Associated Press said 23 police officers were injured.
Mourners outside the Santiago Military Hospital, where Pinochet died, shed tears as news of the general’s death spread. Authorities planned a funeral Tuesday with full military honors, in accordance with Pinochet’s position as a former commander in chief, but without the official protocol accorded a former head of state.
The White House on Sunday issued a statement saying that “Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile represented one of most difficult periods in that nation’s history. Our thoughts today are with the victims of his reign and their families. We commend the people of Chile for building a society based on freedom, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.”
Augusto Pinochet Ugarte was born in the port city of Valparaiso in 1915. His father was a customs agent whose family had come from Brittany, in northwestern France. Augusto was the oldest of six children and the favorite of a strict and demanding mother.
The young Pinochet applied three times to the national military academy before he was accepted. He graduated in 1936 near the bottom of his class. After a year at infantry school, he became a second lieutenant and began an ascent through the ranks. As deputy director of Chile’s war academy between 1949 and 1951, he published two books on military and historical topics.
Like most Latin American armies during the 1960s, the Chilean military worried about Marxist subversion as Castro’s Cuban revolution electrified the region. For some, those fears intensified after 1970, when Chileans elected Allende, a socialist whose victory was seen by supporters as a regional model of the democratic road to socialism.
By 1973, workers were taking over factories and farms. Pro-government leftists and opposition rightists clashed in the streets. Rampant inflation caused chaos and shortages, with people waiting in long lines to buy sugar and toilet paper.
Despite a number of military conspiracies against the left-wing government, Allende promoted Pinochet to commander in chief in August 1973. Less than three weeks later, on Sept. 11, 1973, the newly minted top general staged his coup.
On the day of the takeover, Pinochet ordered fighter planes to attack La Moneda, the presidential palace where Allende had barricaded himself. Pinochet joked with an admiral about providing Allende safe passage on an aircraft, according to transcripts of taped military radio transmissions that surfaced in a 1998 book.
“The offer to remove him from the country stands, but the plane falls, old man, while it’s flying,” Pinochet said over the radio, eliciting a chuckle from the admiral, according to the transcript.
To this day, the grainy images of the aerial attack on La Moneda run regularly on Latin American news retrospectives. Allende died in the palace, probably a suicide.
Pinochet’s troops declared a state of siege and seized thousands of Allende government officials and members of the socialist, communist and other leftist parties. Some were summarily executed or tortured to death. Others died in shootouts, though there was little resistance to the overwhelming force of the military.
The atrocities of the military regime, including kidnappings, executions, torture and rape in secret concentration camps, were carried out in part at the behest of the Directorate of National Intelligence, or DINA. Gen. Manuel Contreras, the DINA director, was the architect of an alliance among South American intelligence services, the so-called Operation Condor, that waged a “dirty war” on political enemies across the globe.
Contreras and Michael Townley, a U.S. citizen working for the Chilean secret police, were later convicted in Chile and the United States, respectively, for their roles in the car bombing in Washington that killed Letelier and Moffitt, still considered one of the most audacious foreign-organized assassinations on U.S. soil. Townley implicated Pinochet in the killing.
Chile’s intelligence agents struck in other nations as well. In 1974, former Gen. Carlos Prats, Pinochet’s predecessor as head of the army, was blown up along with his wife in the garage of the couple’s Buenos Aires apartment building. Authorities in Argentina unsuccessfully sought Pinochet’s extradition in the killings.
Other crimes against Pinochet’s political opponents abroad, along with the influence of a diaspora of hundreds of thousands of Chileans, made the dictator something of a pariah.
White House support
But former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger remained a staunch supporter of Pinochet, despite public comments that attempted to distance the U.S. government from the dictator. Kissinger met with Pinochet in Santiago on June 8, 1976, and privately reassured the strongman of continued White House support despite increasing hostility in Congress.
“In the United States, as you know, we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here,” Kissinger told Pinochet, according to a declassified State Department memorandum obtained in 1999 by Lucy Komisar, a New York journalist. “I think that the previous government was headed toward communism. We wish your government well.”
Kissinger added: “My evaluation is that you are a victim of all left-wing groups around the world, and that your greatest sin was that you overthrew a government which was going Communist.”
Pinochet’s relations with Washington soured under the Carter administration, with its emphasis on human rights, and the decline continued through the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The Chilean leader blamed Marxist propaganda and criticized the United States for pressuring him to restore democracy.
A U.S. Senate investigative committee headed by the late Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) revealed that the CIA had secretly bankrolled the Chilean opposition for years. Former CIA chief Richard Helms pleaded no contest to lying to Congress about the Chile operation.
An avid reader of books about Roman emperors and Napoleon, the stiff-backed, shrill-voiced Pinochet cultivated an imperial mystique. He promoted himself to the exalted and antiquated rank of captain general.
He sported ornate uniforms -- sometimes a white tunic trimmed in red and gold, other times a flowing cape draped over his shoulders as he reviewed goose-stepping troops.
His men revered him as a gruff patriarch who embodied the pride and Prussian-instilled tradition of the Chilean army, one of Latin America’s most powerful militaries.
“Not a leaf moves in this country if I am not moving it,” Pinochet boasted shortly after the coup.
In the later years of his rule, Pinochet claimed credit for an economy that had begun growing steadily after early struggles and miscues. Pinochet knew little about economics, but he gave carte blanche to technocrats who were known as the “Chicago boys” because they had studied economics at the University of Chicago.
The Chicago boys launched an ambitious and experimental set of free-market reforms. They reduced the size of government, privatized state industries and promoted free enterprise. Exports boomed. Chile became the economic showcase of Latin America.
Nations across the region began adopting similar reforms in the late 1980s, and innovations such as a privatized social security system have been copied elsewhere. Pinochet boasted that low-income home construction had set records and that the infant mortality rate had plummeted.
But debate persists over whether the credit for brisk economic growth and poverty reduction should go to the military regime or to the four civilian governments that followed it. Critics say Pinochet’s wrenching policy shifts inflicted lingering damage on public health, education and other social services.
Despite the growing economy, a pro-democracy movement gained strength in Chile during the 1980s. In 1988, Pinochet agreed to hold a referendum on his continued rule. Chileans said no to the dictatorship by a margin of 57% to 43% in a historic vote that helped pave the way for a return to democracy. An opposition coalition led by Christian Democrats and that included socialists won a subsequent national election.
Pinochet handed the presidency to Patricio Aylwin on March 11, 1990. The center-left coalition agreed to let Pinochet retain command of the army and to respect the pro-military constitution and rules he had imposed, including a broad amnesty for military officers.
“The day they touch one of my men, the rule of law ends,” Pinochet warned before ceding power.
Pinochet belittled the findings of an investigative panel known as the Rettig Commission, which in 1991 documented his regime’s abuses. He dismissed the estimated 2,000 “disappeared” political prisoners in his characteristically hard-nosed and unpolished style: “They were nothing but bandits.”
But his civilian successor said the general exercised a stabilizing influence. “If Pinochet had not been there during the transition,” Aylwin said, “we would have had in Chile attempts at insurrection carried out by subordinates.”
Pinochet retired as army chief in March 1998. He immediately became senator for life, a post he created for himself that shielded him from prosecution.
He aspired to a moderate image, making overtures to centrist Senate colleagues and hinting that he might not back a rightist presidential candidate.
Then came a fateful trip to Britain, a nation he had visited often and admired. Pinochet and the Chilean government knew about an investigation by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon, a magistrate on a quixotic crusade to bring South American oppressors to justice. But the former dictator, who had decided to undergo back surgery in London, apparently thought his diplomatic passport would protect him.
On Oct. 16, 1998, British police officers walked into Pinochet’s hospital room as he recovered from the operation and placed him under arrest. At that moment, Pinochet lost his battle to rehabilitate himself in the history books.
Just more than a month later, Britain’s highest court ruled that the aging former dictator could be prosecuted on charges of murder, torture and hostage-taking, saying his official immunity offered no protection for crimes against humanity. Pinochet remained under house arrest for nearly 17 months, fighting efforts to send him to Spain for trial on genocide charges under international law.
In March 2000, British officials ruled that a series of strokes had left Pinochet unable to stand trial. Physically and psychologically debilitated, he returned home, branded as a criminal abroad and rendered increasingly irrelevant in Chile, where even many rightist leaders distanced themselves.
Pinochet spent his final years living discreetly, but opulently, in the several homes owned by his family. He and his wife, Lucia Hiriart, had five children, who remained steadfastly loyal to their father as he fought a series of human rights prosecutions inspired by the detention in Britain. Even as his reputation plummeted, his children denounced the mounting charges as politically motivated persecution.
But the financial scandals that dogged Pinochet in his final years also swept up members of his family, who were accused of at least implicit knowledge of the long-secret overseas accounts. His wife and five children have faced charges of tax evasion or using false passports in connection with the offshore money. A daughter-in-law and the general’s former secretary also have been charged. All denied wrongdoing and were freed after posting bonds as the cases worked their way through Chile’s courts.
Pinochet’s eldest daughter, Lucia Pinochet Hiriart, fled to the United States in January 2006 and sought political asylum after being charged in the tax evasion case. After U.S. officials looked askance at her application, she quickly withdrew it and returned to Chile.
Pinochet lived to see the public rehabilitation of Allende, a martyr of the Latin American left whose bronze likeness stands outside the presidential palace, emblazoned with some of his last words: “I have faith in Chile and its destiny.”
Pinochet was superstitious, former aides said. At times, he also seemed prophetic, all but predicting his misfortune in an interview with the New Yorker magazine shortly before his 1998 arrest.
“I’ve always been a very studious man, not an outstanding student, but I read a lot, especially history,” Pinochet said. “And history teaches you that dictators never end up well.”
Times staff writer Hector Tobar contributed to this report.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.