Chilean dictator terrorized opponents

Thousands killed during his regime

Augusto Pinochet 1915-2006

December 11, 2006|By Colin McMahon

Former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet, whose military regime killed thousands of political opponents in one of Latin America's bloodiest "dirty wars," died yesterday, weakened by ill health, pursued by government prosecutors and abandoned by all but his most loyal defenders. He was 91.

Shorn of his swagger and absent the menacing look he would flash from behind dark glasses, Pinochet at his death was a mere ghost of the emblematic military strongman who played a critical role in the Americas of the 1970s and 1980s.

Instead, Pinochet had adopted the grandfatherly image of a retired statesman. He had lobbied for a place in history that would reward him for opening Chile's economy. And he had defended his regime as having done what was necessary to impose stability by seizing power in 1973.

Pinochet had saved Chile from communism, his supporters insisted; his only crime was being a patriot.

But the blood of the Pinochet era, most of it shed by the regime itself, followed Pinochet well after he left power in 1990.

It followed him to Europe, where human-rights lawyers lobbied for Pinochet's arrest on charges that he had ordered the tortures, disappearances and deaths of political dissidents.

Then the blood followed Pinochet home. And by the time he suffered a serious heart attack that sent him to a Santiago hospital a week ago, Pinochet was under house arrest awaiting trial on charges including abuse of power and stealing from the Chilean state.

"Pinochet was a very polarizing figure, and for some time after the end of the regime Chileans were still split about him," said Rebecca Evans, an associate professor of politics and international relations at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. "But in the last several years, his image has steadily deteriorated."

Pinochet lost most of his remaining international support in the late 1990s, when evidence produced in European courts linked him to the deaths or disappearances of political opponents during the 1970s and 1980s.

A government commission estimated that more than 3,000 people died or disappeared at the hands of the Pinochet regime. Thousands more were politically persecuted, some detained and tortured, others exiled, and still more harassed by secret police.

Yet a sizable minority of Chileans would not condemn Pinochet. Sometimes his supporters denied crimes had occurred. Sometimes they said the oppression was needed to protect Chile from a leftist takeover funded and engineered by Cuba's Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union.

And sometimes his supporters argued - preposterously, to Chileans who remembered Pinochet's remark that "not a leaf moves in this country unless I move it"- that the supreme commander did not know about the abuses.

"The younger generation does not understand the full picture. We were on the verge of collapse," said Guillermo Garin, a retired general who remained loyal to Pinochet. "If human rights were violated, they were violated as part of the struggle to protect the human rights of the majority of the Chilean public."

To Garin and other Pinochet allies, the coup that brought down the democratically elected presidency of Salvador Allende was Chile's salvation. Pinochet not only kept civil war from breaking out, but he also helped stop communism from taking root in South America.

Later, Garin said, the economic policies that Pinochet imposed set the stage for Chile's long stretch of solid economic growth. Inspired by the late economist Milton Friedman and the "Chicago boys," who preached free markets and fiscal discipline, Pinochet privatized state businesses and pursued international trade.

History, Garin said in a recent interview, would judge Pinochet kindly.

But the shadow of the rights abuses grew darker and longer over Pinochet as he approached death.

Secret accounts in foreign banks, some holding millions of dollars, turned up tied to Pinochet. Pinochet family members were accused of enriching themselves at public expense.

Supporters who had absolved Pinochet's "excesses" in fighting communism could not brook theft. His reputation as a hard case politically but a man of personal integrity crumbled. Even support within the army faded away.

"Some crazies still love him," Santiago political analyst David Altman said recently. "But more people are seeing the dictatorship for what it was."

The dictatorship was, at first, a four-man affair, with Pinochet representing the army in the military junta.

How involved Pinochet was in planning the coup, just as how involved the United States and the CIA were in supporting the coup, remains unclear. But once the socialist Allende was ousted, Pinochet quickly moved to consolidate control.

Yet Pinochet's rise to the top was 40 years in coming.

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