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|Posted December 11, 2006|
Augusto Pinochet, 91, Dictator Who Ruled by Terror in Chile, Dies
|Gen. Augusto Pinochet Urgate of Chile in 1986. General Pinochet died Sunday in Santiago at the age of 91. More Images / Key dates in Gen. Augusto Pinochet's career|
By JONATHAN KENDELL
GEN.Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, the brutal dictator who repressed and reshaped Chile for nearly two decades and became a notorious symbol of human rights abuse and corruption, died today at the Military Hospital of Santiago. He was 91.
Dr. Juan Ignacio Vergara, head of the medical team that had been treating him, said his condition degenerated sharply a week after he underwent an angioplasty after an acute heart attack.
General Pinochet seized power on Sept. 11, 1973, in a bloody military coup that toppled the Marxist government of President Salvador Allende. He then led the country into an era of robust economic growth. But during his rule, more than 3,200 people were executed or disappeared, and scores of thousands more were detained and tortured or exiled.
General Pinochet gave up the presidency in 1990 after promulgating a Constitution that empowered a right-wing minority in the Senate well into the new century. He held on to his post of commander in chief of the army until 1998. With that power base, he exerted considerable influence over the democratically elected governments that replaced his iron-fisted rule.
He set limits, for example, on economic policy debates with frequent warnings that he would not tolerate a return to statist measures, and he blocked virtually all attempts to prosecute members of his security forces for human rights abuses. Through intimidation and legal obstacles, General Pinochet sought to ensure his own immunity from accountability and in fact was never brought to trial.But in an astonishing turn of events nearly a decade after he stepped down, he was detained in Britain and then, on his return to Chile, forced to spend his retirement years fighting a battery of legal charges relating to human rights violations and personal corruption.
During those last years he lived in near seclusion, mostly at his home in Bucalemu, about 80 miles southwest of Santiago, scorned even by many of his former military colleagues and right-wing civilian ideologues. Many were disillusioned by revelations that he held, at the least, $28 million in secret bank accounts abroad.
The humiliation Pinochet has gone through is probably a better outcome than any trial could have achieved, said José Zalaquett, Chiles foremost human rights lawyer. General Pinochet won grudging international praise for some of the free-market policies he instituted, transforming a bankrupt economy into the most prosperous in Latin America. They included removing trade barriers, encouraging export growth, privatizing state-owned industries, creating a central bank able to control interest and exchange rates without government interference, cutting wages sharply, and privatizing the social security system. Many elements of the so-called Chilean model were widely emulated in the region.
|Little Use for Constitution|
But by the time of his death, even some of those economic victories had been called into question. The privatizing of Chiles social security system, in particular, has come under attack as being unjust and is undergoing revision. And across Latin America, many of the countries that had adopted similar changes are reversing some of them, responding to a growing wave of popular, leftist revolt over foreign competition and unequal distribution of wealth.
General Pinochet initially led a four-man junta in the 1973 military revolt that brought him to power. President Allende, a democratically elected Socialist, was found dead after shooting himself during an assault on the presidential palace in Santiago. The coup followed many months of political unrest and economic chaos. Hyperinflation, recession, labor strife and middle-class protests had all sapped the Allende government of popular support.
General Pinochet (pronounced PEE-noh-shay) soon made it clear that he had little use for political parties, banning all of them, and he also dissolved congress and scrapped the constitution. He blamed the democratic political system for allowing a coalition of Socialists and Communists to take control of the government. In a 1973 news conference, he asserted that Chile would require an authoritarian government that has the capacity to act decisively and would not return to the traditional political party system for a generation. It was a vow he kept.
In 1974, General Pinochet elevated himself to president, reducing the rest of the junta to a consultative role. He appointed military officers as mayors of towns and cities throughout Chile. Retired military personnel were named rectors of universities, and they carried out vast purges of faculty members suspected of left-wing or liberal sympathies.
The press was censored, and labor strikes and unions were banned. A fearsome security apparatus known as the National Intelligence Directorate, known as DINA, persecuted, tortured and killed Pinochet opponents within Chile and sometimes beyond its borders. A government-commissioned report issued in 2004 concluded that almost 28,000 people had been tortured during the generals reign.
Military regimes were the rule rather than the exception in Latin America in the 1970s. Whether right wing, as in Argentina and Brazil, or left wing, as in Peru, military dictators came to power promising to impose economic discipline but departed, after some initial success, with the economy in disarray.
General Pinochet proved to be the exception. Though no economic expert, he had at his service a team of technocrats, who, months before the coup, put together a radical plan to overhaul the countrys battered economy. Some had studied with the Nobel Prize-winner Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago and embraced his notions of free-market forces and monetarism.
But economic transformation was slow and painful. Mistakes by the generals economic team provoked a deep recession in the early 1980s that left more than a third of the work force without jobs. The poor survived with the help of soup lines and temporary employment in public works projects that paid less than the minimum wage.
Attempts at strikes or other forms of protest were ruthlessly put down by General Pinochets secret police. That repression gave the free-market policies time to take hold. Since the mid-1980s, Chiles gross domestic product has grown an average of more than 6 percent a year, the most impressive performance in Latin America.
|A Steady Rise in the Army|
There were few hints in General Pinochets early life that he harbored either political ambitions or ideological convictions. The son of a customs inspector, he was born into lower middle-class circumstances on Nov. 25, 1915, in the Pacific port city of Valparaíso. He graduated from the military academy in Santiago in 1937 and rose steadily in the officer corps. He was already a general, and only 55, when he was given the important post of commander of the Santiago army garrison in 1971.
It was a crucial moment in President Allendes term. Elected the year before with only 36 percent of the vote, Dr. Allende, a physician, had pressed ahead with a socialist program to nationalize mines, banks and strategic industries, split up large rural estates into communal farms, and impose price controls. The measures soon resulted in steep declines in production, shortages of consumer goods and explosive inflation. A general strike paralyzed Santiago in late 1972, and General Pinochet, as garrison commander, was called on by Dr. Allende to impose a state of emergency in the capital.
This was the first time most Chileans became aware of the tall, broad-shouldered army officer with a brush mustache on his unsmiling face. General Pinochet imposed a curfew, ordered the arrest of several hundred demonstrators on both the left and the right and announced, I will not tolerate agents of chaos no matter what their political ideology.
His seemingly neutral stance convinced Dr. Allende that he was an officer who could be relied on to observe the Chilean militarys century-long tradition of loyalty to civilian government. In August 1973, he appointed General Pinochet commander in chief of the army.
Less than three weeks later, the armed forces overthrew the government. The presidential palace, known as La Moneda, was bombed and strafed by the air force. Dr. Allende shot himself rather than surrender, according to his personal physician.
Aside from battles at some factories in the Santiago suburbs, there was little resistance to the overwhelming firepower of the military units that fanned out across the country. Tens of thousands of Allende sympathizers were rounded up and brutally interrogated. A majority of the killings took place in the three months, long after resistance had ended.
In most cases, prisoners from a slum or agrarian community would be executed as a means of terrorizing their neighborhoods into accepting military rule. The killings were often cynically, and falsely, justified as cases in which prisoners were shot while trying to escape.
The images that most shaped the outside worlds low opinion of the military regime were scenes of Santiagos main sports stadium filled with prisoners, and by the public appearances of General Pinochet, his eyes hidden behind dark glasses, his face set in a scowl, his arms folded defiantly across his chest. Although a majority of executions, jailings and cases of torture took place shortly after the 1973 coup, serious human rights abuses waxed and waned over the next 17 years.
By the late 1980s, the economic prosperity General Pinochet created had lulled him into assuming that in free elections he or his chosen candidate would receive the grateful support of a majority of Chileans. But by then most were either too young to remember the Allende years or too confident about the strength of the economy to believe that only an authoritarian government could insure growth and stability.
|Free Elections Ended Rule|
In 1980, a new constitution backed by the Pinochet government made the armed forces guarantors of institutionality, giving them a nebulous role as political arbiters. It included several other limitations to full-fledged democracy. But in a 1988 plebiscite, an ample majority of Chileans voted against an attempt by General Pinochet to stay on as president for eight more years.
In presidential elections a year later, the former dictators candidate was handily defeated by Patricio Aylwin, a centrist Christian Democrat supported by parties of the left. In 1993, another Christian Democrat, Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, was elected president by an even greater margin.
To the delight of the Chilean business community, foreign investment, which had been stunted during the years the government was regarded with international opprobrium, poured back into the country, and Chilean products were welcomed everywhere abroad. Officials of the new Christian Democratic administration were not inclined to tinker with the roaring economic machine they inherited from the Pinochet administration.
We may not like the government that came before us, Alejandro Foxley, who was finance minister under Mr. Aylwin and is foreign minister today, said in a 1991 interview. But they did many things right. We have inherited an economy that is an asset.
With the transition to a democracy going so well, even admirers of General Pinochet hoped he would settle into a quieter period. Instead, he staged unannounced military maneuvers or placed his troops on sudden alert and gave notice that he would not tolerate attempts to prosecute his eras human rights violators. The day they touch one of my men, the rule of law ends, he warned in 1991.
In a rare exception, he stood by as two subordinates were convicted of ordering the murder of Orlando Letelier, foreign minister in the Allende government. Mr. Letelier was killed by a car bomb in Washington in September 1976, along with an American colleague, Ronni Moffitt. The incident, considered the worst act of state-sponsored terrorism on American soil, strained relations between Chile and the United States for almost two decades.
The two subordinates went to prison in 1995. They were Gen. Manuel Contreras Sepúlveda, the head of DINA, the notorious secret police, who was sentenced to seven years; and his second in command, Col. Pedro Espinoza, who was sentenced to six years.
Stories of corruption began swirling around members of General Pinochets family as well as military personnel, and he used his power as army chief to protect them. He quashed judicial and congressional investigations into the financial dealings of his elder son and of army officers who were accused of running an illegal investment banking operation. Until revelations emerged in late 2004 that he had accumulated secret accounts totaling as much as $8 million at Riggs Bank in Washington, the general himself was rarely accused of corruption and lived in Spartan style. Later, Chilean investigators found that he had as much as $28 million in secret bank accounts in a number of countries.
Through his strong-arm tactics against the democratic governments that succeeded him, General Pinochet was making the point to Chileans that if they wanted to enjoy the capitalist virtues of his former dictatorship, they had better overlook his human rights violations.
Those violations were well documented by the National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, a nonpartisan group appointed by Mr. Aylwin to investigate the killings and disappearances carried out under the generals 17-year dictatorship. The commissions report cited victims by name and described the ghastly circumstances of their deaths by firing squads, beatings, mutilations, drownings and electrocutions. In all, the report attributed at least 3,200 killings and disappearances to the Pinochet security forces.
Retired as dictator but still in command of the army, General Pinochet scoffed at his human rights critics. Asked about the discovery of a mass grave of his governments victims, he was quoted in the Chilean press as joking that it was an efficient way of burial.
Protected by personal security squads, the general also continued an active social life. He was feted by wealthy admirers on his birthday and on the anniversary of his coup. He was often invited to speak at luncheons given by political supporters and leading businessmen. When he finally stepped down as army chief, he joined the Senate as an unelected, permanent member, apparently intending to grant himself further immunity from prosecution.
But the general did not count on the determination of some jurists abroad to bring him to justice. In October 1998, while recuperating in a London clinic from a back operation, he was arrested by the British police in response to an application from a Spanish judge, seeking the generals extradition to Madrid to stand trial on charges of genocide, torture and kidnapping.
A 16-month legal battle ensued, ending with a decision to send him back to Chile in March 2000 because his physical and mental ailments made him unfit to stand trial. Days after his return, Ricardo Lagos, the first Socialist to be elected president since the 1973 overthrow of Mr. Allende, assumed office.
For the rest of his life, the general had to fight off lawsuits and accept the humiliation of constant news reports about widespread brutality under his rule. President Lagos allowed the hundreds of criminal complaints filed against General Pinochet to run their course in the courts. He was succeeded in March 2006 by another Socialist, Michelle Bachelet, a former political prisoner and exile. Her father, an air force general loyal to Dr. Allende, was jailed by his colleagues and died in prison after being tortured.
General Pinochet spent his final years in near seclusion, with his wife, the former María Lucía Hiriart Rodríguez, 84, with whom he had two sons, Augusto and Marco Antonio, and three daughters, Lucía, Verónica and Jacqueline. They all survive him.
In rare public remarks, he continued to insist that he enjoyed the gratitude and wide support of Chileans. But polls indicated that well over half of his compatriots believed he should have been prosecuted for his human rights crimes.
Larry Rohter and Pascale Bonnefoy contributed reporting.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, International, of Monday, December 11, 2006.
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