On Sept. 11, 1973, the four branches of Chile's armed forces overthrew the government of Salvador Allende in a violent coup. Allende died in fighting in the presidential palace and the military junta assumed power, led by Army Commander in Chief Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. The coup ended Chile's long tradition of constitutional government and ushered in 17 years of military rule.
Allende, head of the Popular Unity coalition including Socialists, Communists, Radicals, and dissident Christian Democrats, had won a narrow victory in Chile's 1970 presidential election. As the first avowedly Marxist elected chief of state in the Western Hemisphere, his election set off alarms for democratic governments and military regimes in the region. His socialist government made drastic changes in economic policy, including agrarian reform and nationalization of banks and copper mines. When a series of strikes disrupted public life, opposition from Chile's Congress and the middle and upper classes grew and Allende lost support of the military.
The Chilean military, aided by training and financing from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, gained absolute control of the country in less than a week. The new regime waged raids, executions, "disappearances" and the arrest and torture of thousands of Chilean citizens - establishing a climate of fear and intimidation that would remain for years to come.
The victims of the persecution spanned the population: indigenous peoples, the Catholic Church, the rural community with labor unions, former government officials and leftist political parties facing the fiercest repression. More people were killed in the four months following the coup (through December 1973) than in any other year of the dictatorship. According to Amnesty International and the U.N. Human Rights Commission, 250,000 people were detained for political reasons during this period.
The regime also closed down the National Congress and the Constitutional Tribunal and burned the voter registration rolls. In 1974 , the secret police, DINA, was officially recognized. During this time, foreign nationals in Chile, including diplomats, were among the killed or disappeared. Outside the country, DINA spied on Chileans living abroad and was implicated in the 1976 assassination in Washington of former Allende foreign minister Orlando Letelier, who opposed the military regime. Pinochet's government halted the distribution of lands and dissolved left-wing political parties. Influenced by University of Chicago economists, the regime slashed government expenditures, eliminated price controls and regulatory functions, and promoted free trade.
The end of the 1970s seemed to bring a lessening of repression: the dissolution of DINA in 1977, the end of disappearances, return of some of the expropriated land. Much of the repression, however, was redirected to new opposition groups, such as union organizers.
In 1980, Pinochet's government drafted a new constitution for Chile. It provided that Pinochet would remain in office until 1989 or possibly 1997. It allowed for a gradual return to a democratic government, restoring a limited, appointed, National Congress in 1990 and an elected president in 1997.
When Chile fell into a recession in the mid-1980s, opposition to the regime mounted, fueling protests in the streets. In 1988, Pinochet arranged a plebiscite asking the people whether he should rule for another eight years. The gambit backfired on him and the proposition was defeated. Pinochet then negotiated a deal where he remained head of the armed forces until at least 1998, after which he would become "senator for life."
Chile returned to a democratic government in 1990 when Cristian Democrat, Patricio Aylwin, was elected president. Pinochet remained head of the military.
One of Aylwin's first acts as president was the creation of the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The eight-member commission headed by attorney Raul Rettig was mandated "to clarify the whole truth on the most serious violations of human rights" during the military rule. The commission collected more than 3,400 cases of human rights abuses to investigate and produced a three-volume, 2,000-page document known as the Rettig Report. Initially silent, the armed forces responded with its own four-volume report. In 1992, the National Corporation for Reconciliation and Reparation continued the work of the Rettig commission. It concluded in 1996 that 3,197 people died or disappeared between September 1973 and March 1990 at the hands of state agents. Of these, 1,102 were classified as "disappearances" and 2,095 as deaths.
President Eduardo Frei, a Christian Democrat and son of the president who preceded Allende, began his six-year term in 1994. The armed forces, though they enjoy autonomy, became subordinate to the president. Chile's export-led free-market economy continued its expansion from the 1980s. On March 11, 1998, in the National Congress in Valparaiso, the former dictator was sworn in as a lifetime senator -- a condition of the transition to democracy - and sat down in the body he had closed down 25 years before, among leaders he had persecuted and exiled.
In October 1998, the 83-year-old Pinochet traveled to England for back surgery. He was arrested on a warrant issued by Spanish prosecutors Manuel Garcia Castellon and Balthazar Garzon investigating the deaths of Spanish nationals at the hands of the Chilean security forces. The Chilean government immediately asked for his release, saying that the foreign courts had no jurisdiction over actions taken on Chilean soil. The Spanish prosecutors persisted, saying that Pinochet's actions constituted crimes against humanity.
The struggle over whether Pinochet would be extradited to Spain to stand trial for human rights abuses or sent home to retirement in Chile continued for the next 15 months. While much of the debate focused on side issues such as the state of Pinochet's health, his detention established a precedent in the enforcement of international human rights law.