Pinochet Ugarte, Augusto (1915–2006)
Pinochet Ugarte, Augusto (1915–2006)
Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte (November 25, 1915–December 10, 2006) was a Chilean army officer and chief of state and president of Chile from 1973 to 1990. Pinochet was born in Valparaíso. He entered the Escuela Militar at the age of seventeen, graduated in 1937, and was promoted to second lieutenant in 1939. He and his wife, Lucía Hiriart, had three daughters and two sons.
Pinochet distinguished himself professionally as a specialist in military geography and geopolitics. His 1968 book Geopolítica went through several editions. He held several staff and command posts, and was a member of the Chilean military mission in Washington, D.C., in 1956. He taught at the Escuela Militar Bernardo O'Higgins, at the Academia de Guerra del Ejêrcito, both located in Santiago, and at Ecuador's national war college in the 1950s and 1960s.
By 1970, Pinochet had risen to the rank of division general, and the next year he became commandant of the Santiago garrison, one of the most sensitive and influential of Chilean army assignments. By his own admission, Pinochet had been very critical of politics in general and Marxism specifically since his days as a junior officer. As Santiago garrison commandant he was profoundly influenced by the social, economic, and political turbulence accompanying the administration of Socialist Salvador Allende Gossens. When the army commander in chief, General Carlos Prats González, became interior minister during a serious trucking strike in late 1972, Pinochet assumed the duties of commander in chief, and held this position on the eve of the putsch of September 11, 1973. Pinochet became president of the military junta, a body composed of military commanders in chief. A year later he became president of the Republic of Chile. His term of office was formally extended later through the adoption of a constitution giving him an eight-year term (1981–1989).
As a result both of Allende's policies and economic pressures applied by foreign interests, especially the administration of U.S. president Richard M. Nixon, and the Chilean political opposition between 1970 and 1973, the country was in an economic depression from late 1973 until late 1976. This was also a period of harsh authoritarian rule, during which Pinochet consolidated his influence over the armed forces and the government. By 1978, however, Chileans, especially those of the middle and upper sectors, and some foreigners were talking of an "economic miracle" based on free enterprise, foreign loans, and "denationalization" of the economy. Pinochet's own popularity peaked in 1978, when a questionably legitimate plebiscite confirmed his leadership and policies. The growing opposition denounced the legitimacy of the exercise. In the early 1980s his popularity plummeted as Chile suffered economic recession, and the government resorted to stricter controls of the press, exile of some dissidents, curfews, and multiple violations of human rights reminiscent of the early stages of Pinochet's rule.
From the beginning of his administration supporters of Pinochet considered him the one figure capable of both controlling the armed forces and politicians and suppressing Marxism. He ultimately also became the figure toward whom the evergrowing opposition, composed of church leaders, labor, politicians, human-rights advocates, centrists, and leftists, would direct its energies. The United States and other foreign governments were cautious in relations with his government until the mid-1980s, when the United States, especially, began to work for a return to democratic government.
In the tenth year of Pinochet's government the opposition organized mass demonstrations against the regime's economic, political, and social programs. Beginning in May of that year, miners, students, workers, and dissident political leaders took to the streets to register their discontent. Pinochet used armed force to quell the demonstrations, then began talks aimed at political compromise. When talks stalled, he again used strong-arm tactics, claiming yet again that politicians and Marxists were to blame for Chile's problems. He employed such tactics for the rest of the decade.
In 1986 Pinochet survived an attempted assassination with only minor injuries. By this time the international outcry against the junta's blatant violations of human rights was growing louder with regularity. Two years later, with the economy once again on the rebound, his bid to remain president of Chile until 1997 was thwarted when a plebiscite (October 5, 1988) repudiated him. He did not run in the presidential election of December 1989 and turned over the sash of office to Patricio Aylwin Azócar in March 1990.
Following his unprecedented sixteen and a half years in office (the longest term of any chief executive in modern Chilean history), Pinochet retained the post of army commander in chief. He made it clear that he would protect the army's (and his own) institutional (and political) interests in this capacity. In late 1998, soon after he retired as commander in chief and assumed an appointive senate seat, Pinochet was placed under house arrest in England, where he had gone for medical treatment. The authorities released him in early 2000, but only after an exhaustive legal process in which a Spanish court requested his extradition to stand trial for violations of human rights of Spanish citizens in Chile. Back in Santiago he resigned his senate seat and soon became embroiled in a series of legal measures designed to strip him of immunity and bring him to trial on multiple counts of torture, kidnapping, murder, and disappearance of political opponents committed in the wake of the 1973 putsch and throughout his presidency.
Concomitant with court decisions in 1999 and 2000 that the disappearances of members of the opposition were still open cases—many bodies have yet to be found—Pinochet's health failed to a point where it prevented him from ever standing trial for such crimes. In 2004 evidence surfaced confirming long-standing allegations that Pinochet, some military cronies, and members of his family were indeed involved in tax evasion, owned passports under other names, and had established off-shore bank accounts—the most alarming evidence involving the Riggs National Bank, of Washington, D.C. Fifteen years after he left the presidency, Augusto Pinochet Ugarte had become an embarrassment to the army, the subject of endless legal controversy, and the symbol of an epoch that still divides Chileans deeply. He died of complications following surgery after suffering a heart attack in late 2006.
Blunt, normally humorless, and always military in bearing, Augusto Pinochet bequeathed to Chile a legacy that will be hotly debated for years to come: Was he the resolute general who extricated the country from the turbulence and economic collapse of the Allende years, the unrepentant leader who presided over a remarkable (if at times unsteady) economic recovery, the harsh dictator who brooked no opposition to military rule and claimed that nothing happened during his presidency that he did not know of, the corrupt and venal holder of foreign bank accounts and fraudulent passports whose family and friends enriched themselves while his government repeatedly violated the human rights of its and other countries' citizens—or all of the above?
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Frederick M. Nunn