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Pinochet's Legacy

     Army General Augusto Pinochet established a vicious dictatorship in 1973, had his minions engage  in mass  murder; he became President until 1990 and then became Senator for life, all of which helped him escape retribution or punishment. As a frail old man and a stroke victim, he was finally indicted in Spain and Chile but he died on December 10, 2006 before being tried. Born on November 25, 1915, he had lived over 91 years. Many conservatives lamented his death; they believed that he had saved the country from socialism. Others were grateful that his regime restored property which President Salvador Allende and Congress had expropriated or confiscated. Some also believed that he saved Chile for Christianity. On the other hand, those who had suffered from his repressive dictatorship and their relatives and friends had wanted him convicted and punished for his many crimes before he died. They wanted people in Chile and in the world to understand what a monster he had been. 

    What happened in Chile from 1970-1989 is controversial because it involved murder, imprisonment, property theft, class discrimination, foreign influence, political maneuvering, the rich getting richer and the poor poorer and then, finally, the return of democracy. Some people believe that the national leader is the law; others believe  he/she should obey it.

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    In the first years of his long dictatorship, Pinochet tended to be paranoid, often accusing anyone who disagreed with him as being a Communist. His government struck out at those who supported Allende, imprisoning some and killing others. Bodies were flown over the Pacific Ocean and dumped. People escaped to other countries but Pinochet's intelligence service hunted a few down and killed them. As Dr. Luigi R. Einaudi, a Latin American specialist on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff in the Fall of 1975, described the situation to a group of us attending a Scholar Diplomat Seminar in the State Department, the US government was complaining to the Pinochet government about its human rights abuse but could not push too hard for fear that Pinochet would accuse the conservative government of Gerald Ford of being Communist and might break diplomatic relations. One wonders about this statement. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger believed in avoiding moral issues in favor of being concerned only with powers.  Still, it was a telling story. Pinochet was confident enough in his crusade to alter Chile's politics and economy that he could ignore on of his principal benefactors, the US government. President Jimmy Carter (1977-81), however, reversed the pro-dictatorship policies of the Nixon and Ford administrations, working to get the Pinochet regime to lighten up.
    Whether warranted or not, Salvador Allende had so scared many Chileans that they were willing to forgo civil liberties, justice, and democracy in order to get domestic peace and stability. The hyperinflation wiped out savings. Expropriation and confiscation of property makes property owners, even those with little, nervous. The increasing assertiveness of the working classes unnerved people in the middle and upper classes. Allende's coalition contained some very radical members who did advocate killing their class enemies. Military officers, we do not know how many, believed the military as an institution was going to be destroyed as they knew it, something they would not tolerate. They were furious. Even without the encouragement of the Richard Nixon administration and his use of US and international agencies to destabilize Chile, Chileans would have stopped the madness. Allende clearly had lost control of events. Even the Christian Democratic Party, a center-left party, supported the dictatorship in the beginning. 
    The military revolution succeeded but not without torture, rape, and the shedding of lots of blood. How much? We do not know. In February, 1991, the report of the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, the Rettig Report, said that at least 3,200 persons were killed by the military; tens of thousands more were imprisoned; and an untold number fled the country to save their lives. The 2004 and 2005 reports by the Christian prelate Sergio Valech concluded that 400,000 persons, including children, were tortured. Rapes occurred. The military was still very powerful so the testimony was sealed for 50 years.  The infamous army's Caravan of Death flew around the nation one month killing almost 100 people in custody. Chile cooperated with the military dictatorships in Argentina and Brazil to kidnap, arrest, or kill opponents. The government sent assassins to the United States to  assassinate opponents. This terrorism worked; people were cowed.
    Pinochet's government did away with political parties, free speech, Congress, civil liberties, and unions. These measures intimidated as much as the imprisonments and killings. The non-political average person was affected. The Christian church in Chile initially supported Pinochet's repression because he was trying to stop a "Marxist dictatorship," a misnomer because the Allende government was never a dictatorship. In time, the Christian hierarchy would change its opinion and become a formidable critic of the regime.
    The revolution was economic as well as political. Chile had steadily been moving more and more to statism, the national government regulating or owning many of the means of production. "Pinochetism" reversed that. State-owned enterprises were sold to private investors, often foreigners, or sold back to their one-time owners. Welfare techniques like medical care and social security were slashed. Following the teachings of Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago, Chilean leaders and their economists (called the Chicago Boys) converted Chile into a market-oriented economy at a price. Inflation reached 3,000%, destroying the savings and earnings of all but the rich and large institutions. In short, the regime instituted a "trickle down" theory of wealth creation. This theory holds that helping the wealthy get wealthier meant that the wealth they acquired would trickle down to everyone else. The transition would adversely affect 90% of the citizenry. Very quickly, the rich got richer; the top 5% in income increased its share of total national income from 25% to 50% between 1972 and 1975. Wage earners' share dropped from 64% to 38% from 1972 to 1977. Malnutrition among children jumped top 50%. And similar indices attested to the fact that the average person was paying to enrich the wealthy. Foreign loans and foreign investments propped up the economy, which grew. 
    Seven years after the military revolution, the military junta decided that its efforts to abolish democracy and to create a market-oriented economy had succeeded enough that it could give lip service to the idea of democracy by allowing voters to accept or reject the constitution it had written to replace that of 1925. The Constitution of 1980 passed. It is a document which institutionalized the changes made since September, 1973. Some assert that this plebiscite was fraudulent. However, it did call for another plebiscite in 1988 where the question would be accepting or rejecting the presidential candidate proposed by the military junta.
    Trouble began for Pinochet with the economic collapse in 1982 and the massive protests led by labor leaders. The economic changes had hurt small business and  farmers in Chile, favoring  large enterprises instead, especially foreign enterprise. Fixing the exchange rate spurred imports; domestic manufacturers could not compete. When the world went into a recession in 1981-82, Chile was hit hard. One-third of the work force was thrown out of work as the Gross Domestic Product declined 14%. The government did little to ameliorate individual suffering. Pinochet declared a state of siege in 1984. The next year, Cardinal Juan Francisco Fresno negotiated the National Accord for Transition to Full Democracy which called for a gradual transition to civilian rule, free, direct presidential elections, respect for civil liberties, and the legalization of all political activity. Pinochet ignored this effort but did not arrest or kill its proponents as he would have a decade earlier. The facade of system had cracked.
    Pinochet surmised that mitigating the economic crisis would lower the political heat, so he appointed Hernan Büchi as Minister of Finance. Büchi let the peso's value be determined by the market while instituting controls on the movement of capital into and out of the country. He continued to privatize public-owned enterprises. Inflation fell from 1,000% to about 10%. Having been shaken hard, the economy grew an average of 5.9% from 1984 to 1990, in part fostered by agricultural exports.
    Pinochet was firmly in control or so it seemed. In fact, dissent was growing. The nation had a very long democratic tradition and chilenos were accustomed to being political active. Pinochet had intimidated most of them or convinced them that only he could save the country from a Marxist dictatorship. Although a Communist tried in 1986 to murder the dictator, which would seem to give credence to the idea of a Communist threat, the reality was that Communism was declining in the world and had never been a threat in Chile. By 1989, it was in full collapse. More and more Chilenos rejected the Communist/Marxist threat argument.
    The plebiscite of 1988 rejected Pinochet and the military dictatorship. The military junta nominated Pinochet to run as the sole candidate for president; on October 5th, voters would vote yes or no. Instead of fighting each other, fourteen political parties worked together to get people registered to vote. recruit sufficient poll watchers, and get out the vote. So many voting age chilenos wanted change that  92% registered. Television ads pounded the message that people should vote NO to the election of Pinochet. Pinochet's ego prevented him from understanding how very unpopular he was. Much to his surprise, he lost 54.5% to 43%.
    Having defeated Pinochet, the democratic opposition had to negotiate with the military autocrats, negotiations which proved successful. The largest conservative party, National Renewal (Renovación Nacional—RN), supporters of the military regime, was willing to return to electoral politics. Some of the military was also willing to move away from dictatorship. Pinochet still had clout; he had, after all, received 43% of the vote even after being dictator for 15 years so compromise was necessary. Patricio Aylwin of the Christian Democratic Party, skillfully brokered the changes. So the Constitution was amended in 54 instances to allow political parties exist and campaign, create more Senate seats, diminish the role of National Security Council, re-institute habeas corpus, prevent exiling as a political tactic, a presidential term of six years, and other reforms. Government moderates saw that a new constitution could legitimize what they had been doing. Military autonomy and power was preserved. On July 30, 1989, voters approved the new constitution.
    The opposition won in the 1989 elections because it had to remain united if it was to gain power so it ran Aylwin under the rubric Coalition of Parties for Democracy (Concertación de Partido por la Democracia or CPD). Aylwin's opponent was Hernán Büchi Buc, the former minister of finance.  The third candidate, Javier Errázuriz Talavera, represented a coalition of small parties. Aylwin won 55.2%, Büchi's 29.4, and Errázuriz's 15.4 %. He would serve the four year transitional term. The CPD also won majorities in the Chamber of  Deputies and the Senate but, because Pinochet could appoint one-third of the Senate, it was limited in its power. It would have to negotiate with the conservative coalition, Democracy and Progress, and with appointed Senators. Besides, Pinochet got the right to remain commander in chief of army until 1997.
    The Aylwin administration was clearly a transitional government. It did little to change the economic system. It was careful not to offend Pinochet and the military, It did create the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation to investigate and report on the abuses of 1973-75. The Rettig Report of February 1991 finally confirmed how abusive the military had been.
    The election of December, 1993 brought two old line political families, Alessandri and Frei, into the limelight as in 1964. The winner, Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, a Christian Democrat like his father who was President in 1964-70, received 57.4% of the vote. Arturo Alessandri Besa, nephew of Jorge Alessandri, President in 1958-64, won 24.7%. The remainder was split among minor candidates. Frei managed to get the Concertación nomination over Ricardo Lagos Escobar of the Socialist Party. Many though that the military would not tolerate a Socialist as President having overthrown one in 1973. The conservative parties disagreed substantially and bitterly about candidates and finally ran Alessandri as a compromise.
    The Frei presidency, 1994-2000, was  successful. Gross Domestic Product grew an average of 8% in real terms in 1991-97. The rapid growth of the economy assuaged fears of conservatives. When money flows freely, people are not so testy. When, in 1998, Pinochet was arrested in London on a Spanish warrant, the Frei government tread lightly. The old general returned to Chile in 1999 where he was immune from prosecution because he has a life senator. The Frei government did not extradite him. The economy slowed in 1998 to a 4%  growth rate 1998 and then went negative in 1999 because the agricultural export economy was hit by a severe drought. Nevertheless, civil liberties and politics not only remained democratic but also because political parties felt it safe to disagree. 
    Six candidates ran for president in 1999; none got a majority; and a runoff between the top two vote getters was held in January. Had this system been used in 1970, Salvador Allende might never have been elected and the seventeen-year dictatorship might have been avoided. Taking a longer term retrospective view, Chilean political history would have been different since many presidents had not won a majority of votes. The new constitution forced the formation of coalitions before the election, thus giving a newly-elected president more power. 
    The Concertación de Partido por la Democracia (CPD) coalition candidate, Ricardo Lagos Escobar, led the first round of voting with 47.96 of the vote, only 31,142 votes ahead of his conservative rival, Joaquín Lavín Infante, running with the backing of the pro-government Independent Democratic Union (Unión Demócrata Independiente—UDI) and the moderately conservative Renovación Nacional. Lago's Partido por la Democracia (PPD) was a center-left party. Lagos, who had been minister of public education under Aylwin. He was the second Socialist president of Chile but one the military would not oust. Lavín was a successful urban politician who campaigned on the arguments that Chile had to remain democratic and that the Concertación had failed to solve Chile's problems. Lagos won the runoff in 2000 by 51.35 to 48.69%.
    The Lagos government was moderately successful. The Gross Domestic Product grew 4.2% in 2000, 3.1% in 2001, 2.1% in 2002, and 3.2% in 2003. Then it grew about 5% in 2004-06. Chile signed a free trade agreement in 2004, accounting for some of that growth. Lagos was less tolerant of Pinochet and determined to get him tried and convicted by a Chilean court.
    Pinochet's last years of life were embroiled in courts and international controversy. Arrested in London in 1998, he was placed under house arrest while the British government debated whether to honor the international warrant issue by the Spanish government and send him to Spain or allow him to return to Chile. Complicating this was his ill health, the reason he had gone to the United Kingdom.  In April, 1999, Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former President George H. W. Bush supported his return to Chile where he would not be prosecuted. Home Secretary Jack Straw released him and he returned to Chile. In 2002, he resigned his senatorial seat in 2002 but only after the Supreme Court ruled that he suffered from "vascular dementia" and therefore could not stand trial for crimes. In other words, he was no longer of sound mind and, thus, could not be held responsible. The Court  did strip him of his parliamentary immunity. 
    The tide turned in May, 2004 when his dementia status was reversed, in part because he was quite lucid when he appeared on a Miami, Florida television program, testimony to the power of modern communication technology. By the end of the year, he was charged with murders. Although Chilean courts would vacillate some more about whether he was immune to prosecution, the upshot was that he was indicted in 2006 for multiple murders and tortures.  Moreover, General Manuel Contreras, head of Pinochet's secret police, said Pinochet and a son had been involved in the sale of cocaine and the production of chemical and biological weapons. Pinochet also had managed to use the Riggs Bank to launder between $4-8 million they had skimmed from the Chilean public. The amount he and his family acquired by various means, including the sale of weaponry, amounted to $27 million.  In February, a large proportion of his immediate family was indicted for crimes. He cheated his accusers when he died on December 10, 2006.
    His end allowed the election of Dr. Michelle Bachelet, an openly Socialist Party candidate. Like Allende, she is a physician. She was a surgeon, pediatrician, and epidemiologist. She was health minister under Lagos and then, after doing military studies, defense minister. When neither she nor Sebastían Piñera won a majority in December, 2005, she won the runoff election in January with 53.49% of the vote. She only got 45.96% of the vote in the first round; had the conservatives not split their votes and efforts between Piñera and Lavín, they might have won in the runoff.  Bachelet did well in the two televised national debates. Her service as defense minister assuaged the military and proved that a woman could successfully command the military. She was able to overcome gender bigotry and become the first female president of Chile. More than that, her election meant a definitive repudiation of the Pinochet dictatorship. After all, her father, Air Force Brigadier Gen. Alberto Bachelet Martinez, who served under Allende, was arrested by the Pinochet regime and died in prison; Bachelet herself was imprisoned by the Pinochet regime. She went into exile until 1979.

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   She had little interest in the social ownership of the means of production and distribution, the essence of socialism, but a lot of interest in improving the quality of life of chilenos and creating a standard of living below which no one would sink. She accepted the end of statism, a goal of the Pinochet regime, and embraced the capitalist economy Chile had become. 

For Further Reading::

Online Documents

Pinochet: A Declassified Documentary Obit: Archive Posts Records on former Dictator's Repression, Acts of Terrorism, U.S. Support

The Secret Pinochet Portfolio: Former Dictator's Corruption Scandal Broadens

The Case Against Pinochet: Ex-Dictator Indicted for Condor Crimes


Collier, Simon and Sater, William F. A History of Chile, 1808-2002, New York and London, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Constable, Pamela and Valenzuela, Arturo. A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet. New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1993.

Paley, Julia. Marketing Democracy: Power and Social Movements in Post-Dictatorship Chile. University of California Press, 2001

Donald J. Mabry