Augusto Pinochet Ugarte (born 1915) led the military movement of 1973 that toppled the elected Chilean government. An army general, he proceeded to govern in an authoritarian manner while attempting to rebuild the economy and permanently alter Chile's political system.
Augusto Pinochet Ugarte was born in the Chilean port city of Valparaiso on November 15, 1915. From his early years he aspired to a military career. Because of his small stature Pinochet was rejected twice by the National Military Academy before he matriculated at the Escuela Militar's four year officer training course in Santiago. He graduated in 1936 and was promoted to second lieutenant in 1938. He married Maria Lucia Hiriart and had three daughters and two sons.
During his early professional career Pinochet distinguished himself as a specialist in military geography and geopolitics. His 1968 book Geopolitica (Geopolitics) went through several editions. He also stood out as a student in the Infantry School, in the War Academy (staff school), and in other advanced courses. He held several staff and command posts during these years, posts which provided him with numerous contacts with other officers in the army, air force, navy, and carabineros (national police). Pinochet served on the Chilean military mission in Washington, D.C. in 1956. He taught at the Military School, at the War Academy, and at Ecuador's national war college in the 1950s and 1960s. It was during these early military years that he developed the ideals that guided his military career: patriotism, public service and respect for authority.
Early in his career, Pinochet was not interested in the political debates that dominated civilian society. A cousin said "his ideological orientation was an enigma. If he had any, he had not demonstrated publicly." By 1970, the year Salvador Allende Gossens was elected to the presidency, Pinochet had been promoted to division general—the highest rank in the Chilean army. In 1971 he became commandant of the Santiago garrison, one of the most sensitive and influential army assignments owing to the size of the garrison and to its location in the capital city. By this time Pinochet was firmly convinced that political demagoguery and Marxism were disruptive, hypocritical, and incompatible with, in his words, "the moral principles that should uphold society. … ." He traced his hostility to Marxism to events of the late 1930s, when Marxists participated vociferously in government, and to the Cold War years when the Chilean Communist Party was briefly outlawed. He also became skeptical of the ability of Chile's democratic system to withstand Marxism.
The 1970 presidential election confirmed his deep suspicions, for it gave power to the Marxist Allende despite the fact that he was a minority candidate. As garrison commandant Pinochet was an eyewitness to the social, economic, and political turbulence accompanying the Allende administration's efforts to turn Chile toward socialism through the control of national institutions. Outwardly he seemed to remain loyal to the legitimately elected government. When the army commander-in-chief, General Carlos Prats Gonzalez, became interior minister during a serious trucking strike of late 1972, Pinochet became acting commander-in-chief. He held this position again on the eve of the September 11, 1973 putsch.
On that day the armed forces seized power. Allende was killed in the presidential palace. Pinochet claimed that Allende committed suicide. That was refuted by Allende's widow and others who claim that Allende was murdered by Pinochet's troops. Pinochet became president of the Junta of Government, 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). Allende's loyalists tried to maintain resistance, but it proved costly. Over 1500 lives were lost by the end of the day. Fearful of internal resistance, the junta declared itself in a state of internal war. The U.S. CIA was instrumental in providing the junta with The White Book, a manual for executing a successful coup and caused hundreds to be beaten and tortured by the army and police.
From late 1973 until late 1976 the country was in an economic depression, the aftermath of Allende's policies and the economic pressures that had been applied by both foreigners and Chileans between 1970 and 1973. This was also a period of harsh authoritarian rule. Inflation was gradually reduced in the mid-1970s, and by 1978 Chileans, especially those of the middle and upper sectors, were talking of an "economic miracle" based on free enterprise, foreign loans, and "denationalization" of the economy. Pinochet's popularity peaked in 1978 when a plebiscite confirmed his leadership and policies—although a growing opposition denied the validity of the vote. In the early 1980s Chile suffered from the world recession, and the government resorted to stricter controls of the press, the exile of some dissidents, curfews, and repression characteristic of the early years of Pinochet's rule. At the same time he oversaw a shift in economic policy that revived the role of the state, which he and his supporters had blamed for Chile's misfortunes prior to 1973.
The supporters of Pinochet liked his role as Chile's strongman, the one figure capable of controlling the armed forces and the symbol of anti-Marxism. But he also became the figure toward whom a growing opposition (church leaders, labor, politicians, human rights advocates, leftists) directed its energies. The United States and other foreign governments were cautious in relations with his government. Through this period he maintained his resolute anti-Communism and showed an uncanny ability to survive politically in a country marked by unsolved economic and social problems. Pinochet was able to do this because of his own abilities, but also because of the strength of discipline in the military, the inability of opposition leaders to agree on policy, and the fear of many Chileans that alternatives would be worse than his authoritarianism.
These factors became subjects for increasing debate within the government, throughout Chile, and in the world press in 1983 when opposition leaders 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 as usual that politicians and Marxists were to blame for Chile's problems.
In 1986 Pinochet survived an attempted assassination with only minor injuries. But the international outcry against his alleged violations of human rights continued to grow louder. The new constitution that had been seven years in the making was ratified by plebiscite in 1980. Even though it was approved, the election was declared a fraud. The constitution called for Pinochet to serve another eight years. This time actually permitted the opposition party to mount a successful campaign to remove him from office. The U.S. Congress financed $2 million worth of media consultants, poll judges and a parallel vote count to ensure a somewhat fair election. On October 5, 1989, 55% of the Chilean people voted to remove Pinochet from office. He was able to retain power until free elections installed a new president, Patricio Alwyn on March 5, 1990. Although he abdicated his title as president, Pinochet remained on as commander in chief of the army. After stepping down as president, Pinochet devoted himself to modernizing and computerizing his beloved army. Even at 80, he still saw himself as a force within Chilean society, very much in charge of the armed forces until his constitutionally forced retirement in March 1998.
Pinochet's own version of his role in government can be found in his The Crucial Day (1982). Frederick M. Nunn's The Military in Chilean History (1976) provides information on the military and political background to Pinochet's rise to power. Critical of the military and Pinochet, and sympathetic to his predecessor, are Robinson Rojas Sandford, The Murder of Allende and the End of the Chilean Way to Socialism (1975), and Ian Roxborough, Phil O'Brien, and Jackie Roddick, Chile: The State and Revolution (1977). Robert Moss' Chile's Marxist Experiment (1973) is favorable to Pinochet. Pinochet: the Politics of Power 1988 and A Nation of Enemies: Chile under Pinochet assess the situation since the coup.