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General Augusto Pinochet was ruthless in eliminating his political opponents. And ultimately, he was held responsible for the torture and deaths of thousands of people. Pinochet supporters, however - as we've just heard - even now defend his record, believing that he saved Chile from socialism. NPR's Tom Gjelten has this look back on Pinochet's life.

TOM GJELTEN: 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.

Professor ARIEL DORFMAN (Literature and Latin American Studies, Duke University; Writer): I can remember one day, being in Allende's office and the phone rang. And is the president there? And I said, no, the president is not here. And I said, who is this? He says, General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, he said. Oh, I said, just a moment, please. I'll find him. I'll find him. Because I thought this is ours, this Pinochet. Here's our guy, you know.

GJELTEN: But in the end, he was not the president's guy. Allende was implementing socialist economic policies in Chile with disastrous results. General Pinochet finally agreed with other military officers that they had to stop Allende, and from that point on, Pinochet showed him no mercy. On September 11th, 1973, he ordered a fierce ground and air assault on the presidential palace. In a recorded radio communication that day, Pinochet discusses 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.

General AUGUSTO PINOCHET (Former Chilean Ruler): (Foreign language spoken)

GJELTEN: Unconditional surrender, Pinochet shouts. No negotiation. Unconditional surrender. Right, Carvajal says. He then suggests that Allende be guaranteed only passage out of the country. Pinochet agrees, but then Pinochet 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. Carvajal finds that funny.

Vice Admiral PATRICIO CARVAJAL (Chilean Navy; Co-planner of Coup): (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Vice Admiral CARVAJAL: (Foreign language spoken)

GJELTEN: 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. A 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.

Prof. DORFMAN: 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.

GJELTEN: 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 considered it an act of state-sponsored terrorism. And yet in Chile, as much as a third of the population stood with Pinochet to the end. Fernando Alessandri, whose family has a long political lineage in Chile, says the Pinochet he remembers from his youth was not the evil figure portrayed by Pinochet opponents.

Mr. FERNANDO ALESSANDRI (Chilean Citizen): He lived a block and a half away from where we lived. So I got to see him jogging every morning at six. He was a man that had a profound love for his country. He was an authoritarian, a leader.

GJELTEN: 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 secretly undermined the Allende government, U.S. officials were quick to praise Pinochet when he brought in American economic advisors and instituted radical free-market reforms in Chile.

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

Mr. ELLIOTT ABRAMS (Former Assistant Secretary of State): By the mid '80s, you know, it was clear that he had outlived any usefulness he had ever had. Even if you thought he was terrific in 1973, by 1983, it was time for him to go.

GJELTEN: Not until 1988 did General 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 Pinochet having second thoughts.

Mr. ABRAMS: At the end, he got cold feet. At the very end, the days leading to the plebiscite, he had to be pressured to go ahead with that plebiscite. There were all sorts of rumors floating around about efforts to stop it. I don't think there would have been a plebiscite were it not for U.S. pressure.

GJELTEN: Pinochet lost the plebiscite. Eighteen 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 him, and they continued to dwell on Pinochet's cruelty. Ariel Dorfman recalls a day when 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.

Prof. DORFMAN: 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. Now what sort of a man is this?

GJELTEN: 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.

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

GJELTEN: 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 a test case in international law. Ariel Dorfman, now a novelist and a playwright, is pleased.

Prof. DORFMAN: He who thought that his name would forever go down as the man who had stopped communism in the world will, I think, 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 that they have done in crimes against humanity. Humanity can judge them for what they did against us all.

GJELTEN: In the end, the British government concluded Pinochet was medically unfit to stand trial, and allowed him to return instead to Chile. But he had lost his swagger. Shortly after his return, a Chilean court stripped Pinochet of the immunity he had 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 standing trial in his native land. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

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