Obituary: Admiral Jose Merino

Harold Briley
Wednesday 11 September 1996 23:02 BST

Admiral Jose Merino was the strongman's strongman. While General Augusto Pinochet was the stern face of repression familiar to the world for 17 years of military rule in Chile, the lesser-known admiral was the unbending backbone of its junta all those traumatic years.

Merino was the prime mover in the coup that ousted the world's first democratically elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende, in 1973. Though only second in command of the navy, he undermined his commander-in-chief, Admiral Montero, who was inclined to continue support for Allende and his Popular Unity Party. Merino would have none of it. He despatched a note to the army and air force commanders, Generals Pinochet and Leigh, urging them to act. They did so with force, bombarding the presidential palace. Allende was killed, along with thousands of other Chileans. Many more were to die subsequently at the hands of the regime, kidnapped, tortured and disappeared, adding a new word to state terrorism - the "Desaparecidos".

It was a mirror image of the neighbouring Argentina's Dirty War, if not on such a huge scale, though Chile's junta lasted longer and was more vilified internationally, coming in for particularly severe condemnation from the British Labour Party, whose senior members had been personal friends of Allende. As in Argentina, the navy under Merino were every bit as ruthless as their publicly more predominant army partners.

Merino took over command of the navy as Pinochet ruled with an iron hand, brooking no opposition. The army chief systematically disposed of his opponents. While General Leigh was ousted from the three-man junta in 1978, it was testimony to Merino's influence and power that he remained to the end, leaving office only when Pinochet reluctantly handed government back to civilian rule in 1990. Throughout, Merino was Pinochet's confidant and potent partner, every bit as authoritarian as his master and deeply distrustful of politicians. He regarded Allende's party as a tool of Communist expansion in Latin America as did the then United States government, which was implicated through the CIA in efforts to undermine Allende's government.

Surprisingly to the outside world, the military government was not as universally detested within Chile as it was abroad. Many middle-class Chileans praised the junta for restoring order on the streets, ending the anarchy of the last days of the Allende regime and pursuing what appeared to be pragmatic monetarist policies in a new free market economy. Merino went along with this to some extent, but when Pinochet embarked upon a policy of privatisation, targeting Chile's ports, Merino stepped in and declared that he must remain in charge of these important installations on Chile's very long and vulnerable coastline. He got his way.

Like many of Latin America's military rulers, Merino was a deeply conservative Roman Catholic, publicly expressing his ethos of "the Flag, Church and Family". Yet it was the Catholic Church and its courageous clergy which led the fight against human rights violations. It was not an unusual sight to see Merino and other military leaders praying in church, while a few blocks away their opponents were being tortured and killed, a graphic example of the double standards of Merino and his fellow senior officers.

After 10 years, cracks began to appear and the military regime made concessions in response to growing dissent, allowing civilians into senior government posts. While Merino and Pinochet blamed much of Chile's troubles and its bad image abroad on an international Communist conspiracy master-minded from Moscow, the most effective challenge to their authoritarian rule came from the more moderate political groups within the country itself and even from some sections of the armed forces.

While the austere Pinochet insisted on remaining army chief, Merino went into retirement in the naval port city of Valparaiso, playing golf and secure in the knowledge that there could be no punishment of the military for human rights violations. Pinochet had secured an amnesty providing them with immunity from prosecution.

Merino had been born into a naval family and spent some time in England, first as a boy when his father was Chilean naval attache in France, and then later in London as his country's assistant naval attache in 1956 and 1957.

Jose Toribio Merino Castro, naval officer: born 14 December 1915; member, Chilean Gov-ernment Junta 1973-90; married 1952 Margarita Riofro Bustos (three daughters); died Valparaiso 31 August 1996.

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