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Augusto Pinochet: Villain to Some, Hero to Others

General Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile as a dictator for 17 years, is dead. He led the military coup that overthrew Chile's elected socialist president, Salvador Allende, in 1973. He was ruthless in eliminating his political opponents in Chile, and ultimately was held responsible for the torture and deaths of thousands of people.

Augusto Pinochet Ugarte was a disciplined soldier in a country where the military normally obeyed civilian rule. Even when other army officers began grumbling about Chile's left-wing president, Salvador Allende, Pinochet continued to follow the president's orders. In June 1973, Allende appointed Pinochet commander-in-chief of the Chilean Armed Forces.

Ariel Dorfman is a Chilean writer who once worked for Allende. He remembers answering the phone in Allende's office when Pinochet called.

"I said, 'Just a moment please. I'll find him. I'll find him,'" Dorfman says, "because I thought this is ours, this is Pinochet, he's our guy."

But in the end he was not the president's guy.

Allende was implementing socialist economic policies in Chile, with disastrous results. Gen. Pinochet finally agreed with other military officers that they had to stop Allende, and from that point on, Pinochet showed him no mercy.

On Sept. 11, 1973, he ordered a fierce ground and air assault on the presidential palace. In a recorded radio communication that day, Pinochet discussed the attack with Vice Admiral Patricio Carvajal, a fellow coup plotter. Carvajal had been in touch with Allende, who was holed up in the palace, and he relayed a message that Allende wanted to talk.

Pinochet interrupts him, shouting, "Unconditional surrender! No negotiation! Unconditional surrender!"

"Right," Carvajal says. He then suggests that Allende be guaranteed only passage out of the country. Pinochet agrees, but then makes a joke that suggests he may just as soon see Allende dead.

"He can be flown out of the country," Pinochet says, "but then, old boy, while he's flying, the airplane falls out of the sky."

As it turned out, Allende was never put on a plane. Surrounded and under attack, he shot himself in the head rather than surrender to Pinochet's forces.

In the days that followed, Pinochet's security forces rounded up Allende supporters wherever they could find them. Many were tortured. More than 3,000 were killed or disappeared. One hundred thousand Allende supporters went into exile.

Ariel Dorfman, who fled to the United States, thinks Pinochet concluded that once he launched his brutal crackdown, he had no option but to go all the way.

"When you begin with that level of violence, I think the fear that is generated inside people like Pinochet forces them to continue a reign of terror that will not stop because it's the only way in which you can silence the voices," Dorfman says. "Remember that Allende had received 45 percent of the vote in the previous election. That's an enormous amount of people to repress."

Pinochet's reach extended beyond Chile. Evidence has tied his secret police to an assassination in Argentina, an attempted assassination in Rome, and to a car bombing in downtown Washington, D.C., in 1976. A former Chilean diplomat and his American assistant were killed in that attack; U.S. officials judged it an act of state-sponsored terrorism.

And yet in Chile, as much as one-third of the population stood with Pinochet to the end. Fernando Alessandri, whose family has a long political lineage in Chile, says that the Pinochet he remembers from his youth was not the evil figure portrayed by Pinochet opponents.

"He lived a block and a half away from where we lived, so I got to see him jogging every morning at 6," Alessandri says. "He was a man that had a profound love for his country. He was an authoritarian -- a leader."

Alessandri's grandfather, Jorge Alessandri, narrowly lost the 1970 presidential election to Salvador Allende and subsequently supported Pinochet's coup against Allende.

So did the United States. Having undermined the Allende government, U.S. officials were quick to praise Pinochet when he brought in American economic advisers and instituted radical free-market reforms in Chile.

But Pinochet's brutality and stubbornness soon proved too much even for his allies. Elliott Abrams, the assistant secretary of state for Latin America under President Reagan, says that he and other U.S. officials grew increasingly frustrated over Pinochet's unwillingness to return Chile to democracy.

"By the mid-80s, it was clear that he had outlived any usefulness he had ever had," Abrams says. "Even if you thought he was terrific in 1973, by 1983, it was time for him to go."

But Pinochet paid no heed to any such complaints. On the tenth anniversary of his coup, as on the previous nine, Pinochet spoke defiantly to the nation. Dismissing opposition leaders as "agents of violence," Pinochet claimed to be ruling with the absolute majority support of the Chilean people.

Not until 1988 did Pinochet put his rule to any democratic test, and even then he did so reluctantly. He had promised years earlier to let the Chilean people decide in a plebiscite whether he should continue as president or resign and allow free elections, but as the date approached, Elliott Abrams and other U.S. officials noticed that Pinochet was having second thoughts.

"At the end, he got cold feet," Abrams says, adding, "I don't think there would have been a plebiscite were it not for U.S. pressure."

Pinochet lost the plebiscite; 18 months later, he was replaced by an elected president. But Pinochet remained commander-in-chief of the Chilean Armed Forces and then had himself appointed Senator for Life. Those who had suffered under Pinochet's rule could not seek redress for the wrongs committed against them and they continued to dwell on Pinochet's cruelty.

Ariel Dorfman recalls a day when Chilean investigators found the bodies of people who had disappeared during the early days of Pinochet's rule. They were buried, two to a coffin, in one of Chile's general cemeteries.

"These were men who had been disappeared from their families for 15, 16 years, and Pinochet said, 'Whoever put them two to a coffin should be congratulated because he saved the Chilean government the price of more nails.'" Dorfman says.

While Dorfman and others continued to demand that Pinochet be held accountable for the crimes committed under his direction; Fernando Alessandri and other Chileans argued that Pinochet should be appreciated, not punished.

"The Pinochet regime has many mistakes, very serious mistakes, but these are mistakes that should always be kept in perspective," Alessandri says. "His biggest legacy will be that he opened the country's economy to the world and brought the world to the country."

Pinochet did finally face judgment, but it took a foreign government to get the process started. A Spanish judge who had been investigating crimes against Spanish citizens in Chile ordered Pinochet arrested on charges of genocide and terrorism. He was served with the warrant while staying at a medical clinic in London.

Suddenly, Pinochet -- hero to some, villain to others -- became yet another thing: a test case in international law.

Ariel Dorfman, now a novelist and a playwright, is pleased.

"He ... will forever be remembered as the man who inaugurated a new leap in the concept of human rights, which is: Heads of states do not have impunity for those things they have done in crimes against humanity. Humanity can judge them for what they did against us all," Dorfman says.

In the end, the British government concluded that Pinochet was medically unfit to stand trial and allowed him to return to Chile. But he had lost his swagger. Shortly after his return, a Chilean court stripped Pinochet of the immunity he'd enjoyed as a member of the Chilean Senate.

A Chilean investigative judge indicted him for his role in the kidnapping and execution of political prisoners in 1973. It was only his poor medical condition that allowed Pinochet to avoid a trial in his native land.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Morning EditionAll Things Considered
Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.