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Augusto Pinochet: 1915 - 2006

Iconic dictator led '73 Chilean coup

Backed by the U.S., his military regime killed and tortured thousands.

December 11, 2006|Sebastian Rotella and Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writers

SANTIAGO, CHILE — Augusto Pinochet, the embodiment of the brutal and intensely anti-communist South American military dictator, died Sunday, a military doctor said. He was 91 and had suffered a heart attack a week earlier.

Pinochet ruled this Andean nation for 17 years after seizing power in 1973 in a coup that toppled leftist President Salvador Allende. He gave up control in 1990, retiring to a presumed impunity, but he spent the last years of his life fighting charges of human rights abuses and corruption.

Pinochet's coup, which led to the deaths or disappearances of about 3,200 people and the torture of thousands more, is widely regarded as a watershed event in recent Latin American history. The military takeover, experts generally agree, was a dramatic example of how unwilling South American elites were to allow left-wing governments to come to power, even by election.

In an era when Latin America was a raging Cold War battleground and Fidel Castro's Cuba was seen as fomenting revolution, those elites gathered support from allies in Washington.

Thousands of once-classified U.S. documents released in recent years showed that the Nixon administration, through the CIA and other means, worked secretly to undermine Allende's elected government.

Pinochet denied any foreign involvement in the coup, declaring: "I never had contact with any American. I swear by the memory of my parents."

But in 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell acknowledged a U.S. role in destabilizing Allende's government. "It is not a part of our country's history that we are proud of," he said.

Other military governments in the region, such as the junta that ruled Argentina, were bloodier than the Chilean dictator's regime. But Pinochet's dominating public persona and his seeming contempt for Chile's venerable democratic traditions marked him as a central figure among Latin America's late-20th century despots.

Pinochet's regime pioneered the use of "disappearance" as a tool of repression, refusing to acknowledge the detention of executed prisoners.

The dictator's much-feared secret police also organized assassinations against dissidents abroad, including a car bombing in Washington on Sept. 21, 1976, that killed Orlando Letelier, Chile's former foreign minister, and an American colleague, Ronni Moffitt.

In recent years, the human rights and corruption charges, as well as his detention for nearly 17 months in Britain, had chipped away at the retired general's aura of steely invincibility.

Although still admired by those who credited him with jump-starting Chile's economic growth, the aging and frail strongman had become somewhat of an embarrassment for a nation that has long taken pride in being more economically advanced and committed to social justice than many of its neighbors.

Reports that Pinochet had stashed away as much as $28 million in secret offshore accounts during his rule alienated even his stalwart supporters. At the time of his final illness, Pinochet was facing fraud and tax evasion charges in connection with the money, which first came to light at U.S. congressional hearings in 2004.

No event marked the exorcising of Chile's authoritarian ghosts more than the election in January of President Michelle Bachelet, a lifelong socialist and former political prisoner exiled during the Pinochet regime.

Among the human rights cases that were pending here against Pinochet was one involving dozens of alleged abuses at Villa Grimaldi, a former torture center outside the capital where the young Bachelet and her mother were held before being allowed to leave Chile.

Bachelet's father, Alberto Bachelet, an air force general deemed a traitor by the military because he aided the Allende government, was arrested and tortured by Pinochet's forces after the coup. He died of a heart attack while in custody, and his daughter blames his death on the abuse he endured.

As president, Bachelet has cultivated warm relations with the military and has been applauded for her attempts at national reconciliation.

'I love my fatherland'

On Nov. 25, Pinochet celebrated his 91st birthday with a statement accepting "political responsibility" for acts committed during his rule. But the long-unrepentant general did not explicitly accept legal responsibility, and declared that his aim had been to avert the "disintegration" of Chile, the latest version of an oft-repeated justification for his actions.

"Today, close to the end of my days, I want to make it clear that I hold no rancor toward anybody, that I love my fatherland above all else," Pinochet said in the statement.

Pinochet's death sent thousands of supporters and critics into the streets of Santiago, the capital, some uncorking bottles of champagne in celebration of the general's demise.

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