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The Pinochet file Friday, 8 December, 2000, 18:12 GMT
Pinochet profile: Saviour or tyrant
Pinochet wants reconciliation; others want him tried
By Latin America analyst Nick Caistor

Augusto Pinochet Ugarte was born the son of a customs official in the Pacific coast port of Valparaiso on 26 November 1915.

It was apparently his mother who pushed him into a military career, and his wife Lucia, the daughter of a prominent politician, who encouraged his ambitions.

The young Pinochet rose through the officer corps in an army based on Prussian traditions of discipline and loyalty to the constitution, but as early as the 1950s he was involved in political struggles, as he headed the clampdown on the Chilean Communist party.

Paradoxically though, it was for his apparent lack of political ambition that he advanced to the rank of general under the left-wing Popular Unity government led by Salvador Allende in the early 1970s.

Allende trusted his army commander
In June 1973 he was made commander-in-chief, again because President Allende thought he could be trusted.

Only a few months later, in September 1973, President Allende discovered how wrong he had been. He lost his life in the coup led by General Pinochet, who headed a military junta representing all branches of Chile's armed forces.

But very quickly it was General Pinochet who came to represent the military regime, and it was he who ordered many of the purges that saw more than 3,000 supporters of the Allende regime killed, thousands more tortured, and many thousands more again forced into exile.

Saw himself as a patriot

The general is a hero to many
He closed down the Chilean Parliament, banned all political and trade union activity, and in 1974 appointed himself president.

General Pinochet has always defended his actions as those of a patriot who rescued his country from chaos and the threat of Communism.

In the 1970s, many Chileans appeared to support this point of view, particularly as the economy recovered and stability returned to towns and countryside.

But there was always opposition to his rule. By the mid-1980s the left-wing parties had re-grouped and organised protests that attracted increasing numbers, while in 1986 the armed groups fighting his rule narrowly failed in an assassination attempt.

Popular backlash

It seems that the general underestimated the extent of this discontent against his regime. The 1980 national constitution brought in by his military government set a timetable for the election of a president.

It allowed for a referendum on whether or not Pinochet should be the only candidate. Much to his surprise and dismay, this proposal was rejected, and General Pinochet found himself having to allow the return of civilians to government.

So in 1990 he reluctantly stepped down as president. He did however remain as commander-in-chief of the army, a position he frequently used to ensure both that there were no prosecutions against any members of the security forces suspected of human rights abuses during the 17-year military regime, and to block any radical political initiatives.

In 1998 General Pinochet finally relinquished his post as commander-in-chief. The very next day, he took up a seat in parliament as a senator-for-life, another position he had created for himself in the 1980 constitution.

Since then, he has insisted that his role as senator would be to promote reconciliation in Chilean society. But as events since his arrest have shown, General Pinochet is a figure who instantly polarises opinion not only in Chile but throughout the world.

The Pinochet File


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