Chile's Gen. Pinochet, the Strongman Who Tore Apart His Country

On his 70th birthday, Gen. Augusto Pinochet was seen exercising, a sign of defiance in the face of unrest in Chile.
On his 70th birthday, Gen. Augusto Pinochet was seen exercising, a sign of defiance in the face of unrest in Chile. (Corbis-bettmann)
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The streets of Santiago were slick from fire-hose spray, and the acrid scent of tear gas lingered in the crisp air. It was the autumn of 1985, and the tempo of protest against Chile's military dictatorship was building steadily. Diplomats and politicians were demanding change. Students and labor activists filled the streets, ducking police batons and chanting gleefully, "It's going to fall! It's going to fall! The military dictatorship is going to fall!"

But Gen. Augusto Pinochet, ensconced in his heavily guarded palace after more than a decade in power, seemed as immovable as a tank. On his 70th birthday, he called the capital's press corps to his suburban mansion. As cameras whirred, he lifted weights, performed sit-ups and jogged around his driveway in a sky-blue track suit. Pinochet's wordless message of robust defiance was unmistakable. The old soldier was still strong and he had no intention of calling a retreat.

I spent much of that year living in Santiago, and I visited Chile as a newspaper correspondent repeatedly between 1983 and 1990, when the Pinochet regime finally gave way to elected civilian rule.

Pinochet, who died Sunday at age 91, was a man with a mission. He genuinely believed he was doing the right thing, carrying out a grim duty in order to save his country from evil. In every speech and interview, the strongman of Santiago returned to the same theme: his sacred, patriotic calling to rid Chile of communism, whatever the cost.

"I am a man fighting for a just cause; the fight between Christianity and spiritualism on the one hand, and Marxism and materialism on the other," he told a magazine interviewer in 1984. "I get my strength from God."

He was stern, insecure and humorless, except when in the company of his grandchildren. In a region of cronyish despots, Pinochet cultivated the image of a disciplined Prussian commander. He was so sensitive to suggestions of impropriety or autocracy that when a news magazine ran a cartoon of him as a bewigged Louis XIV, he had every copy confiscated from newsstands across the capital.

Yet the longer he remained in power, the more he came to revel in its titles and trappings. He traveled in a convoy of gold Mercedes Benzes, changing their order so assassins could not target him. He promoted himself to captain general after removing all other senior army officers who approached that rank. In public, his peaked cap, dark glasses and swishing gray cape made him look like a giant bird of prey.

He was scornful of politicians, viewing them as a selfish and bickering class that had led Chile into the clutches of communism. At his rare news conferences, he was impatient and brusque, feigning ignorance of human rights abuses and insisting his regime had nothing in common with the Nazis or the Inquisition.

But when Pinochet spoke of the need to "extirpate" communism from Chilean soil, it sent chills down my spine. As victims emerged from secret prisons, we learned what that verb really meant: fingernails pulled out, electric shocks applied to genitals, mock-rape by dogs. To this day, I remember the faces and the voices of weeping men, ashamed to confide the terrible things that had been done to them.

An equally tragic legacy of Pinochet's rule was that it exacerbated the divisions that had split Chilean society during the presidency of socialist Salvador Allende, whose revolutionary ideals inspired the young and poor -- and horrified the old and wealthy.

Instead of healing those wounds, Pinochet rubbed them raw. Instead of restoring civilian rule after overthowing Allende in 1973, he shut down Chile's democratic institutions. Military rule created a nation of sycophants and cowards, where neighbors did not speak for years, where office workers looked away as people were dragged into unmarked cars, where elegant housewives held pro-military parades and teenage slum-dwellers were tear-gassed.

While researching a book about Pinochet's rule, I interviewed hundreds of people. Many were ordinary civilians whose dignity had been stolen by a combination of economic and political oppression: the black-listed carpenter who had to sell his family wedding rings, the bookkeeper whose father's library of history and philosophy books was burned by a squad of soldiers.

In addition to wiping out communism in his country, Pinochet implemented radical free-market economic reforms that threw tens of thousands of people out of work but eventually put Chile on a path of growth that is the envy of Latin America today.

Now, years later, this reformist image has been sullied by revelations about Pinochet's secret bank accounts in Washington and elsewhere. In his final years, he stooped to mafioso-like assertions of senility to escape prosecution for human rights abuses. He died a free if diminished man, publicly unrepentant and convinced he had saved Chile from becoming another Cuba.

But while the old general was lifting weights and running laps in his protected palaces, determined to prove he could out-tough his critics, the society outside those walls was flailing and divided.

Even this week, many Chileans reacted to Pinochet's death with the same extremes of adoration and hatred that were common when he was still in power. Perhaps only now that he is gone, and one of his regime's torture victims, Michelle Bachelet, occupies the presidential palace, can the reknitting of Chile's social fabric finally begin.

Constable, an editor and reporter at The Post, is co-author of "A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company