Biography of Augusto Pinochet, Chile's Military Dictator

General Augusto Pinochet

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Augusto Pinochet (November 25, 1915–December 10, 2006) was an army officer and 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 involved in Operation Condor, a cooperative effort by several South American governments to remove leftist opposition leaders, often by murder. Several years after stepping down, he was charged with war crimes concerning his time as president but died in 2006 before being convicted on any charges.

Fast Facts: Augusto Pinochet

  • Known For: Dictator of Chile
  • Born: Nov. 25, 1915 in Valparaiso, Chile
  • Parents: Augusto Pinochet Vera, Avelina Ugarte Martinez
  • Died: Dec. 10, 2006 in Santiago, Chile
  • Education: Chilean War Academy
  • Published Works: The Crucial Day
  • Spouse: María Lucía Hiriart Rodríguez
  • Children: Augusto Osvaldo, Jacqueline Marie, Lucía, Marco Antonio, María Verónica
  • Notable Quote: "Everything I did, all my actions, all of the problems I had I dedicate to God and to Chile, because I kept Chile from becoming Communist."

Early Life

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 married María Lucía Hiriart Rodríguez in 1943 and they had five children. He entered Chilean War Academy when he turned 18 and graduated in four years as a sub-lieutenant.

Military Career Begins

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 and wrote five books on politics and warfare. By 1968, he was 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 by 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, 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, Pinochet directed his troops to take Santiago, the capital, and he ordered an airstrike 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 organizations 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

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.

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, was victorious. However, 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 and Death

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 too unhealthy to stand trial. Further charges were brought against him in 2006, but Pinochet died on December 10 of that year in Santiago before the prosecution 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 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 he was a patriot who loved his country.

Others say he was a ruthless despot directly responsible for thousands of murders, in most cases for no more than thought crimes. They believe 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. 

Sources

  • Dinges, John. "The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents." Paperback, Reprint edition, The New Press, June 1, 2005.
  • The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica (2018). "Augusto Pinochet: President of Chile."