Augusto Pinochet: Chile's Military Dictator

1973 coup that ended President Allende's life put Pinochet in power

Pinochet
Augusto Pinochet.

Augusto Pinochet was a career army officer and the military dictator of Chile from 1973 to 1990. His years in power were marked by inflation, poverty, and the ruthless repression of opposition leaders. Pinochet was also involved in Operation Condor, a cooperative effort by several South American governments to do away with leftist opposition leaders, often by way of murder.

Several years after stepping down, he was charged with war crimes relating to his time as president, but he died in 2006 before he was convicted on any of the charges.

Pinochet was born on Nov. 25, 1915. in Valparaiso, Chile, to descendants of French settlers who had come to Chile more than a century before. His father was a middle-class government worker. The eldest of six children, Pinochet entered military school when he turned 18 and graduated in four years as a sub-lieutenant.

Military Career

Pinochet rose quickly through the ranks despite the fact that Chile was never at war during his military career. In fact, Pinochet never saw combat while he was in the military; the closest he came was as the commander of a detention camp for Chilean Communists. Pinochet lectured at the War Academy for periods of time and wrote five books on politics and warfare, and by 1968 he had been promoted to brigadier general.

Pinochet and Allende

In 1948, Pinochet met future President Salvador Allende, a young Chilean senator who was a socialist. Allende had come to visit the concentration camp then run by Pinochet, where many Chilean Communists were being held. In 1970, Allende was elected president, and he promoted Pinochet to be commander of the Santiago garrison.

Over the next three years, Pinochet proved invaluable to Allende, helping to put down opposition to Allende’s economic policies, which were devastating the nation’s economy. Allende promoted Pinochet to commander-in-chief of all Chilean armed forces in August 1973.

The Coup of 1973

Allende, as it turned out, had made a grave mistake by putting his trust in Pinochet. With the people in the streets and the country's economy in shambles, the military moved to take over the government. On Sept. 11, 1973, less than three weeks after he had been made the commander-in-chief of the army, Pinochet directed his troops to take Santiago, the capital, and he ordered an air strike on the presidential palace.

Allende died defending the palace, and Pinochet was made part of a four-man ruling junta led by the commanders of the army, air force, police, and navy. Later he seized absolute power.

Operation Condor

Pinochet and Chile were heavily involved in Operation Condor, a collaborative effort among the governments of Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay to control leftist dissidents such as the MIR, or Movement of the Revolutionary Left in Bolivia, and the Tupamaros, a band of Marxist revolutionaries that operated in Uruguay.

The effort consisted mainly of a series of kidnappings, "disappearances," and assassinations of prominent opponents of the right-wing regimes in those countries.The Chilean DINA, a feared secret police force, was one of the driving forces behind the operation. It is unknown how many people were killed during Operation Condor, but most of the estimates range well into the thousands.

The Economy Under Pinochet

Pinochet’s team of U.S.-educated economists, who were known as “the Chicago Boys,” advocated lowering taxes, selling state-run businesses, and encouraging foreign investment. These reforms led to sustained growth, prompting the phrase “The Miracle of Chile.” However, the reforms also led to a decline in wages and a spike in unemployment, and there was a severe recession from 1980 to 1983.

Pinochet Steps Down

In 1988, a nationwide referendum on Pinochet resulted in a majority of the people voting to deny him another term as their president. Elections were held in 1989, and the opposition candidate, Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin, won, although Pinochet’s supporters continued to hold enough influence in the Chilean Parliament to block many proposed reforms.

Pinochet remained in office until Aylwin was installed as president on March 11, 1990, although as an ex-president he remained a senator for life. He also kept his position as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Legal Troubles

Pinochet might have been out of the limelight, but the victims of Operation Condor did not forget about him. In October 1998, he was in the United Kingdom for medical reasons. Seizing upon his presence in a country with an extradition treaty, his opponents brought charges against him in a Spanish court in connection with the torture of Spanish citizens in Chile during his rule.

He was charged with several counts of murder, torture, and kidnapping. The charges were dismissed in 2002 on the grounds that Pinochet, by then in his late 80s, was to unhealthy to stand trial. Further charges were brought against him in 2006, but Pinochet died on Dec. 10 of that year in Santiago before the prosecution could proceed.

Pinochet's Legacy 

Many Chileans are divided on the topic of their former dictator. Some say they see him as a savior who rescued them from the socialist policies of Allende and who did what had to be done in a turbulent time to prevent anarchy and communism. They point to the growth of the economy under Pinochet and claim that he was a patriot who loved his country.

Others say that he was a ruthless despot directly responsible for thousands of murders, in most cases for no more than thought crimes. They believe that his economic success was not all it seemed because unemployment was high and wages were low during his rule.

Regardless of these differing views, it is undeniable that Pinochet was one of the most important figures of the 20th century in South America. His involvement in Operation Condor made him the poster boy for violent dictatorship, and his actions led many in his country never to trust their government again. 

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