General Augusto Pinochet

Military dictator of Chile for 17 years who was pursued by the courts on charges of murder and torture


Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, soldier and politician: born Valparaiso, Chile 25 November 1915; Colonel, Chilean Army 1966, Brigadier-General 1969, Divisional General 1970, General 1973; Commander-in-Chief, Chilean Armed Forces 1973-98, Captain General Emeritus 1998-2006; President of Chile 1974-90; Life Senator 1998; married 1943 Lucía Hiriart (two sons, three daughters); died Santiago 10 December 2006.

In nearly two centuries of independent history, Chile never produced a man with a more acute political nose than Augusto Pinochet. Whatever his military gifts may have been - and, like those of most of his Latin American confreres, these were never tested in battle except against his own people - his talent for intrigue, allied to a single-minded ambition, exceeded by far that of his countrymen, military and civilian.

His talents brought him supreme power during a 17-year dictatorship which formally ended in 1990. Thereafter, as commander-in-chief of the Chilean army until March 1998, he enjoyed an informal authority which cowed the civilian governments of Patricio Aylwin, Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle and Ricardo Lagos which had succeeded him.

It was only a rare hubristic error he committed in coming to London in late 1998 which brought about his arrest, confinement and consequent humiliation. This robbed him of the admiration for his skills that many practitioners of politics had, joyfully or grudgingly, for long harboured. Nevertheless his name will live on in the history books, albeit for an achievement which even his prescience could scarcely have foreseen: his capture on an extradition warrant and the ensuing legal battle has provided a locus classicus in the development of international human rights legislation and the global fight against the use of torture. Ironically, he had often expressed verbally and in his actions his disdain for human rights and his promotion of the effective use of torture.

The future dictator was born in the port city of Valparaiso in 1915, son of a customs official, Augusto, and his wife Avelina. An education in the city's best Catholic schools gave him a grasp of the importance of religion. This was to come in useful in his later political career where he had to sort out his Catholic friends and sympathisers - many of whom were to be found in the Vatican - from the many opponents who stood up to him within Chile's own powerful Catholic Church. Though he was rumoured to have become a freemason and thus flouted Catholic teaching, he was always careful to try and project an image of piety by frequenting the sacraments and publicising his devotion to the Virgin of Mount Carmel, protectress of the Chilean army.

In 1933, bent on a career as a soldier, he entered the army as an officer cadet, emerging four years later as an ensign in the infantry. From his early days as a soldier he had no hesitation in demonstrating his abiding interest in intellectual matters. In the 1940s he pursued all the opportunities for study that the army offered him, specialising in geopolitics and military geography. Those subjects have always been of immediate relevance to the armed forces of a country as long, thin, apparently indefensible and as surrounded by disgruntled neighbours as Chile is.

In 1948 Pinochet entered the Academy of War. His studies, however, were interrupted by some months sorting out the miners in the coal region of Lota, a spell of duty which, in the light of history, can be seen to have eerily anticipated similar activity by his idol and champion Margaret Thatcher against Arthur Scargill some decades later in Britain. He obtained a staff officer status, in 1951 being posted to the Military School. Besides teaching his specialised subjects he edited a magazine for officers, Cien Aguilas ("A Hundred Eagles"). Between 1953 and 1972 he produced five books on geopolitics, geography and military history.

After two years' duty in the Rancagua regiment in Arica on the often tense border with Peru he started a law degree at the University of Chile but in 1965 was plucked out to join a group of officers with the job of organising a War Academy in Quito. Three and a half years in the Ecuadorean capital gave Pinochet a chance of living geopolitics at first hand: Ecuador was an ally of Chile because both had indifferent relations with Peru.

Peru, vanquished and occupied by Chile in the 19th-century War of the Pacific, had no love for Chileans who had stolen Peru's Atacama Desert and its mineral riches. For their part the Ecuadoreans were at loggerheads with the Peruvians over the latter's possession of vast swathes of the Amazonian jungle.

Back in Chile, Pinochet received his first important command in 1960, that of the Esmeralda regiment, and three years later was appointed deputy director of Chile's War Academy. In 1968 he was promoted to brigadier-general in command of the VI Division based in Iquique, a post he continued to occupy after Salvador Allende came to power in 1970. Pinochet was therefore absent in the north as the Chilean right, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and US companies such as ITT sought to prevent Allende's assuming the presidency to which he had been freely and fairly elected.

A US military attaché was later to confess that he carried down from Washington a large sum in dollar banknotes to buy the assassination of General René Schneider, the army commander who was loyal to the forces' traditional unwillingness to be implicated in party politics and was resisting calls from the Chilean right and the US for an immediate coup against Allende. Though not directly involved, Pinochet cannot have been unaware of the manoeuvrings.

From 1971 onwards, the career of this studious, efficient officer became centred for good on Santiago. As major-general he was given command of the garrison of the capital and a year later was appointed, with the approval of Allende, to head the army general staff.

By then, within Chile and in the United States, the enemies of the President's unstable coalition of six parties of the left and centre-left had shown their continuing desire to topple the head of state. Nevertheless elections results indicated that, despite the trials brought on by Popular Unity's many failings and US co-operation in economic sabotage, Allende's government had been growing in popularity.

At a time when political currents were swirling round the army, navy, air force and the Carabineros or gendarmerie, undermining their tradition of being apart from parliamentary life, Pinochet retained the confidence of the now beleaguered President, who trusted him. On 23 August 1973 Allende named Pinochet Commander-in-Chief of the army on the departure of General Carlos Prats.

Meanwhile, with or without US financial subsidies, senior figures in the armed forces were hard at work planning a coup against Allende. Though the historians' interpretations differ, it seems that Pinochet was seen as too loyal to Allende to be included initially in the conspirators' circle and that he was not recruited until Saturday 8 September, only three days before the date fixed for the action.

Indeed, as 11 September dawned and the president realised that the armed forces had indeed turned their backs on the apolitical tradition which had distinguished them from their confrères in Latin America, he was worried about the fate of his faithful Pinochet. As the coup unrolled, Allende in a radio broadcast vilified a "general rastrero" or "traitorous general". But he was not referring to Pinochet, as many thought, but to General César Mendoza of the Carabineros.

Once the Moneda presidential palace had been bombed into submission by the British-built Hunter jets and the President was dead in the fiery rubble, Pinochet moved fast to recover any ground which he might have lost in the run-up to the coup. He was aided by his command of the largest and most influential of the four arms and on 12 September assumed the chairmanship of the four-man junta.

Though many Chileans, including many on the right, initially felt the military would return power to civilians within months, Pinochet's junta disposed otherwise, formally dissolving Congress on 14 September and burning the electoral registers in June 1974 when Pinochet assumed all executive powers.

The DINA secret police was formally inaugurated by him that same month, but it had already been operating for some months, targeting those who could have helped set up a democratic government in exile, one of the dictator's nightmares. Prats, his former superior officer, was blown up with his wife in Buenos Aires; Bernardo Leighton, an enlightened Christian Democrat, was gravely wounded by DINA gunmen in Rome; and Orlando Letelier, Allende's former ambassador to the US, was blown up in the diplomatic quarter of Washington.

Surrounded by conservative economists, many trained at the University of Chicago, Pinochet encouraged the visit to Santiago in March 1975 of their guru, Professor Milton Friedman. He approved of the dictatorship and chose not to criticise the assassinations, illegal imprisonments, torture, exile and other atrocities - all exhaustively chronicled by Amnesty International - now being carried out in the name of the free market. (He thus foreshadowed Washington's indulgent attitude towards Letelier's murder which would take place the following year.)

The imposition of right-wing free market policies caused many bankruptcies but, allied to the fact that political parties and trade unions were outlawed and their leaders often murdered, it opened the way in the 1980s to a period of growth which at times exceeded 10 per cent a year.

This economic bonanza, the confiscation of the property of Pinochet's opponents, the foundation of an arms industry and the privatisation of state companies, whose most important beneficiaries were the already prosperous, afforded particular opportunities for the quick-witted pinochetistas. His own immediate family, though wracked with scandal, divorce and upset, waxed increasing rich as Pinochet himself, with no little success, sought to maintain the fallacious image of an austere and honest soldier.

In December 1990, he had to order the army to threaten the use of force to deter a civilian inquiry into the business dealings of his elder son Augusto. The latter had been implicated in the so-called "Pinocheques" affair, involving the discovery of a number of large cheques and a small factory in Chile producing Swiss small arms which was sold to the Chilean army.

In 1980 Augusto Pinochet held a plebiscite on a new constitution against which his opponents were not permitted to organise and the next year this flawed document gave him a further eight years in power. With the outbreak of the Falklands War Pinochet saw many chances. By quietly allying himself to a great arms manufacturer like Britain he could help his own forces at the same time as teaching a lesson to the Argentine military rulers who had almost brought Chile and Argentina to war in 1979. The military help Pinochet gave to Margaret Thatcher has not yet been publicly quantified but was certainly immense, and vital in the British recapture of the archipelago.

In September 1988 Pinochet's own personal prestige was boosted when he very narrowly escaped a well- organised ambush and assassination attempt by left-wing guerrillas on the outskirts of the capital.

That year, over-confident, he lost a plebiscite about a further term in office. A year later a majority of Chileans had little alternative other than to approve constitutional amendments which shielded him and his associates against prosecution for their actions. After elections in 1990 he handed the presidency to Aylwin, retaining command of the army till 1998. Between 1979 and 1995 he produced a series of solid polemics and memoirs.

On 11 March 1998 he quit his command and became Life Senator while retaining the post of Captain General Emeritus. This arrangement, combining parliamentary immunity and the ultimate recourse of being judged only by a military court, afforded him effective impunity.

He had not counted on the determination of a Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzón, who had him arrested on charges of murder and torture on 16 October 1998 in London, a city whose shops and restaurants - from Harrods to the River Café - he had previously, under Conservative and Labour, frequented with a light heart.

Probably under pressure from Washington, where successive presidents had looked kindly on him, the Home Office selected a panel likely to compile a medical report acceptable to the British government which on 2 March 2000 suggested that Pinochet's health did not allow him to stand trial. The report fulfilled its purpose and he was freed by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who as Foreign Secretary had had him arrested, and rushed on to a Chilean military aircraft. Arriving back in Santiago the following day, he rose from his wheelchair and waved his crutch in triumph at supporters who had gathered at Pudahuel airport to greet him.

Confounding all predictions, his opponents in Chile continued to pursue him successfully through the courts. Amid the bitterest legal battles, they persuaded the Supreme Court definitively to lift his immunity as a Senator for Life in August 2000. On 31 January 2001 he was placed under house arrest on charges of murder and kidnapping in connection with the so-called Caravan of Death, the killing in October 1973 of 75 supporters of the civilian government, one of several hundred charges he faced.

Amid much judicial prevarication Pinochet was declared too ill to stand trial, although the judges did not dare to declare him insane, the only condition under the Chilean constitution which would have allowed him to escape judgement. On his 91st birthday last month, he tentatively accepted "political responsibility" for what happened during his rule, but the legal arguments over the nature of this responsibility continued until his death.

Hugh O'Shaughnessy

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