Augusto Pinochet, Chile's Military Dictator

1973 Coup Ended Allende's Life, Put Pinochet in Power

Pinochet
Augusto Pinochet.

Augusto Pinochet was a career army officer and 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 on the part of several South American governments to do away with leftist opposition leaders, often by means of murder. Several years after stepping down, he was charged with several war crimes relating to his time as president, but he died in 2006 before he was convicted on any charges.

Early Life

Augusto 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. He was the eldest of six children, and his father was a middle-class government worker. He entered military school when he turned 18 and graduated as a sub-lieutenant in four years.

Military Career

Pinochet rose quickly in rank in spite of the fact that Chile was not at war. In fact, Pinochet never saw any action in combat during his entire military career; the closest he would come was as 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. By 1968 he had been promoted to brigadier general.

Pinochet and Allende

In 1948, Pinochet met Salvador Allende, a young Chilean senator and a socialist. Allende had come to visit the concentration camp run by Pinochet where many Chilean Communists were held.

In 1970, Allende was elected president, and he promoted Pinochet to commander of the Santiago garrison. Over the next three years, Pinochet proved invaluable to Allende, helping 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, made a grave mistake in trusting Pinochet. With the people in the streets and the economy in shambles, the military made a move to take over the government. On Sept. 11, 1973, less than 20 days after he was made commander-in-chief of the army, Pinochet ordered his troops to take Santiago and 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 would seize absolute power for himself.

Operation Condor

Pinochet and Chile were heavily involved in Operation Condor, which was a collaborative effort among the governments of Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay to control leftist dissidents such as the MIR and the Tupamaros. It consisted of a series of kidnappings, disappearances and assassinations of prominent opponents of the right-wing regimes in those countries. The Chilean DINA, a secret police force, was one of the driving forces of Operation Condor. It is unknown how many people were killed, but most estimates range well into the thousands.

The Economy Under Pinochet

Pinochet’s team of U.S.-educated economists, known as “the Chicago Boys,” advocated lower taxes, the selling off of state-run businesses and encouraging foreign investment.

These reforms led to sustained growth, prompting the phrase “The Miracle of Chile.” However, these reforms also led to a decline in wages and a spike in unemployment.

Pinochet Steps Down

In 1988, a nationwide referendum on Pinochet resulted in a majority of the people voting to deny him another term as president. Elections were therefore held in 1989, and the opposition candidate won, although Pinochet’s supporters continued to hold enough influence in the Chilean Parliament to block many new reforms. Pinochet stepped down as president in 1990, although as an ex-president he remained a senator for life and kept his position as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Legal Troubles

Pinochet may 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 extradition, his opponents brought charges against him in a Spanish court. He was charged with several counts of murder, torture and unlawful kidnapping. The charges were dismissed in 2002 on the grounds that Pinochet, by then in his late 80s, was unfit to stand trial. Further charges were brought in 2006, but Pinochet died before they could proceed.

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 socialism 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 they think he was a ruthless despot who was directly responsible for thousands of murders, most for no more than thought crimes. They say they believe that his economic success is not all it seems because unemployment was high and wages were low during his rule.

Regardless of 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 to never trust their government again. 

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"The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents" by John Dinges is an insightful telling of this period in Chile's history. Dinges was a correspondent for the Washington Post in Chile and was awarded the Maria Moors Cabot Prize for excellence in reporting on Latin America.