11 Dec 2006
The death of Augusto Pinochet in Santiago, Chile at the age of 91 has brought to a close the chapter on one of Latin America’s controversial and notorious figures. Pinochet came to the limelight in August 1973 following his appointment as the commander of the Chilean army by the democratically elected Marxist leader Salvador Allende.
Allende, a veteran of Chilean politics was elected president in 1970 in a country that has traditionally been governed by a coalition of center right parties with support from the oligarchs and the Catholic Church.
Allende and his Popular Unity Coalition initiated programs to end foreign control of key sectors of the economy and expand expenditure on social welfare programs like health and education. His government also strengthened the labor unions and increased wages.
All these left leaning programs did not sit well with the Nixon administration in the US that was obsessed with the idea of fighting global communist expansion. Henry Kissinger, the then U.S Secretary of state was quoted as saying; “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people”. The U.S administration then set the stage to destabilize the government and pave a way for a military coup. Development aid was drastically reduced and funding for the anti-communist military establishment increased. The American ambassador to Chile was apparently given the green light to create favorable conditions for the impending coup to succeed.
On September 11th 1973 less than three weeks after his appointment as commander of the Chilean army, Augusto Pinochet led a coup against Allende. The president died under unclear circumstances during the putsch and Pinochet became the head of a ruling four-man military Junta.
Pinochet then proceeded to round up Allende’s supporters and initiated house-to-house searches for dissidents and leftist literature. Many people were tortured to death and others were dropped off alive into the ocean from military helicopters. Babies born to women in detention were given to pro-government (mostly military) childless couples as a token of gratitude for their support of the regime. The biological mothers of such children were usually killed. The people that ‘disappeared’ under the Pinochet regime numbered more than 3000.
Pinochet consolidated his power (taking the title of president in December 1974), ruled with an iron fist, curtailed press and individual freedoms and started dismantling the social programs of Allende. The labor unions were suppressed, spending on education and health reduced, wages of the working class cut and the nationalized companies were privatized. Through tactful manipulations, Pinochet was sworn in as president in 1981 in line with a constitution drawn up by him. He restored legality to non-leftist parties in 1988. After losing a referendum in October 1988 that was meant to extend his rule for eight years, he organized a presidential election in December 1989 in which he lost. He handed power to the winner Patricio Aylwin in 1990 and remained the head of the army until 1998 that he steps down and becomes senator-for-life.
Since then, Pinochet has been fighting one legal battle or another. He spent two years in Britain fighting extradition to Spain to face human right charges. He was indicted in the U.S for tax evasion in connection to the millions of dollars that he apparently stole and stashed in secret bank accounts there. There were numerous other cases lined up against Pinochet. The old man had his trump card. In Britain and in Chile, Pinochet slipped through the legal dragnet because of his advanced age and failing health.
Pinochet will like to be remembered as a hero and the man that saved his country from Communism. His opponents will call him a villain and a traitor- a man that subverted Chilean democracy to satisfy his paymasters in Washington D.C.
The departure of Pinochet does not end the controversy surrounding his rule of Chile. Modern advances in technology (like DNA testing), for example, has been able to proof to some of the children (now adults) that Pinochet offered as gifts to his collaborators that their ‘parents’ are fake. Imagine how they feel when they know that the people that they have been assuming are their parents were actually the collaborators of the man that killed their biological parents. This is just one of the complicated problems that the Pinochet legacy has bequeathed to the 16 million people of Chile.
It is therefore understandable that some Chileans jubilated when his death was announced.
Njei Moses Timah