Augusto Pinochet, born in Valparaiso in 1915, was President of Chile between 1973 and 1990, ruling as a dictator after overthrowing the democratically-elected President Allende in a coup d’état. His legacy remains very controversial: his supporters point to Chile’s flourishing economy and its ranking as one of Latin America’s most prosperous nations, while his opponents believe that these economic improvements came at a great human cost.
Pinochet was born as one of six children to Augusto and Avelina Pinochet. At the age of 17, he embarked on a military career, quickly rising through the ranks to be appointed Commander in Chief in 1973 by President Salvador Allende, the world's first democratically-elected Marxist leader. Only three weeks into his new post, Pinochet played a central role in the CIA-sponsored coup against the president in September 1973. The aim of the coup was to “liberate Chile from Marxist oppression.” The attack culminated in the surrounding of the presidential palace and President Allende’s suicide. Before the coup, Chile had enjoyed a long history as a democratic country where rule of law prospered.
Chile’s new military government consisted of the heads of the three armed forces, known as the junta. As head of the oldest branch, the Army, Pinochet was appointed the head of this junta. The first actions that the junta took were to ban all left-leaning political parties. Although publicly criticizing it, the United States provided support to the military government after the coup. Many of the regime’s opponents were rounded up and assassinated.
In December 1974, Augusto Pinochet officially changed his title from Supreme Chief of the Nation to that of President of Chile. His principal task was to reinvigorate the country's flagging economy using free-market reforms, and his policies eventually led to substantial GDP growth, with Chile becoming a liberalized economy, well-integrated into the world market.
Government spending was reduced, state services were privatized, and the restrictions Allende had imposed on foreign investment were removed. In 1980 a referendum was held to decide whether to adopt a new constitution. Among its features were proposals to ban all left-wing parties for good, increase presidential powers, and allow Pinochet an additional eight years in office. The new document was approved by over 67% of the electorate, although the result was widely criticized as having been fixed.
A temporary fall in economic growth followed the referendum, prompting strikes and protests throughout the country, all of which were suppressed, and in 1986 Pinochet survived an assassination attempt. Another referendum was held in 1988, which asked the people for another eight years in office. Prior to the referendum, in the face of international pressure, Pinochet had legalized other political parties in 1987.
Another eight-year term was rejected by 56% of the population, leading to presidential and legislative elections in the following year. These were won by the Patricio Aylwin, who replaced Pinochet as president in March 1990. Pinochet remained the military’s commander in chief until 1998, allowing him immunity from prosecution. In 1998, when General Pinochet traveled to London for back surgery, he was placed under house arrest by authorities at the request of the Spanish Government, who wished to extradite him to Spain to face charges of torture.
The arrest provoked a lengthy legal battle, in which the British House of Lords ruled that he be extradited to Spain. However, in 2000 the British government overturned that ruling, releasing Pinochet on medical grounds, who then returned to Chile. Later that year, the Chile Supreme Court indicted Pinochet on human rights abuses, a ruling which it subsequently overturned in 2002, only to reinstate it again in 2004, ruling that he was, after all, capable of standing trial. He was placed under house arrest, awaiting trial, but died of a heart attack in 2006 before full legal proceedings were underway.