Most of us know one thing about Augusto Pinochet—he was a dictator.
From 1973 until his ousting in 1990, he ruled over Chile through a toxic mix of violence, fear, and intimidation.
But many of us might not know about his rise to power, the many atrocities he and his staff committed, or the corrupt family he raised until his death in 2006.
We’ve rounded up 5 key facts about the military leader and his humiliating fall from grace.
Augusto Pinochet: 5 interesting facts about the life and death of a Chilean dictator
1. Pinochet was the Chilean army’s commander-in-chief.
Former president Salvador Allende promoted Pinochet to the prestigious role only weeks before the army leader staged a coup—with U.S. backing—on September 11, 1973.
During the coup, the army laid siege to the presidential palace in Santiago, which was home to Allende at the time. Allende refused to surrender, and instead shot himself during the assault.
After leading the years-long coup from 1973, Pinochet made himself head of the military regime, and put into place a consitution that gave him an 8-year presidential term, an interesting fact about Augusto Pinochet.
From 1981 until 1989, he ruled the country, becoming so confident in his policies and power that he was not prepared to lose his position. Following a plebiscite in which he unsuccessfully tried to negotiate another eight-year term, he enacted a constitution giving him additional powers as commander-in-chief. He stepped down as president under much pressure in 1990, and held the commander-in-chief position by force until 1998.
2. Thousands died under his rule.
After ousting former president Allende, who’s policies had led to political unrest, economic chaos, and a recession, Pinochet banned all political parties in Chile.
He dissolved national Congress, and removed the powers of the Constitution. In 1973 he stated that Chile would “not return to the traditional party system for a generation.” He kept this vow, at the expense of his people.
From the time Pinochet assumed power in 1973—well before officially making himself president—until he stepped down in 1990, 3,200 people were killed. Another 40,000 were detained and tortured, and an estimated 220,000 went into exile in other countries.
Reports at the time said that there was very little resistance to the military coup that spread across the country. In the first few months of the coup, long after any resistance had ended, tens of thousands of Allende supporters were imprisoned and tortured.
The majority of the murders also occurred during these early months.
Military officers were promoted into prominent positions—as mayors, university rectors, and council officers. These members of Pinochet’s inner circle flushed out faculty members that they suspected of being sympathizers to Allende’s cause.
Workers’ unions were banned, and the press were censored.
The National Intelligence Directorate—DINA—has since been recognized as going beyond Chile’s borders to capture, interrogate, and kill those who opposed Pinochet’s rule. More recently, members of Pinochet’s secret police have been sentenced for kidnapping nationals of Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia.
3. He gave himself a seat as senator for life.
As president of Chile—after altering the constitution to give himself more power as commander-in-chief—he also assigned himself the role of lifetime senator, a very fascinating fact about Augusto Pinochet.
With his new powers as commander-in-chief, he held considerable influence over the democratic election process.
He abused his powers to set limits for economic policy debates, he blocked attempts to hold his forces accountable for violations of human rights, and used intimidation tactics to keep himself safe from prosecution.
4. He was captured in the U.K. to be tried for his crimes.
Following a back surgery in Britain, Pinochet was arrested in 1998. A Spanish judge ordered that Pinochet be extradited to Spain and tried for crimes of genocide and terrorism against his Spanish victims. He stayed on house arrest in Britain for 17 months while his judges pled insanity on his behalf. He was then deported to Chile due to ill health.
5. His last years were humiliating.
After returning to Chile to face his crimes, he lived in relative seclusion. Shunned by his former military colleagues and reviled for his crimes, many of his former supporters stated publicly that he should be tried for war crimes.
Civilian supporters, who had once hailed Pinochet for his economic reform policies, turned on him when it was discovered that he and his family had hidden $28 million in overseas accounts.
In 2004, the Chilean Court of Appeal stripped Pinochet of the immunity from prosecution he had given himself, an interesting fact about Augusto Pinochet.
Pinochet was ordered to stand trial for war crimes and crimes against human rights, as well as law suits from the families of his victims.
He spent the remainder of his years fighting an onslaught of legal charges, including personal corruption charges against him and his family members. A court ordered that war crimes charges brought against the shamed former leader be suspended indefinitely, due to him being unfit to stand trial.
Leading human rights lawyer, Jose Zalaquett, believed that, “The humiliation Pinochet has gone through is probably a better outcome than any trial.”
In 2006, Pinochet’s wife read a statement from the dictator, saying that he accepted political responsibility for acts committed under his rule. He died two weeks later, having never stood trial for the genocide of his own people.
In 2018, 20 former members of Pinochet’s secret police were imprisoned on charges relating to the kidnappings and murders of 12 people between 1975 and 1977.
After democracy was restored in Chile, and through the administrations that have followed Pinochet, the Chilean economy has thrived.
Today, unemployment in Chile stands at 7%, and poverty at just over 18%. These figures are both considered low for Latin America.
Surveys show a division in peoples’ opinions of the dictatorship. Only 55% of Chileans view the violent rule as bad or very bad. 9% view it as good or very good. The remaining people polled were undecided.
There has been public support for the deceased dictator’s economic model, with a Brazilian congressman praising Pinochet. Many countries who adopted several of the dictator’s financial governance systems have, however, since reformed their processes.
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