Chile's former long-time dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, is dead at the age of 91 after suffering what doctors called an acute heart attack one week ago. VOA's Serena Parker reports General Pinochet was admired by some Chileans and despised by others.
Human-rights groups say General Augusto Pinochet will be remembered for the brutality of his dictatorship. According to an official report, Chilean security forces under his rule, killed more than 3,000 of Mr. Pinochet's opponents in the years following the 1973 coup. About 30,000 Chileans have testified that they were tortured or detained by his military government.
Sebastian Bret with Human Rights Watch says Chile is still struggling to overcome its dark past.
"Chile is still coming to terms with the legacy that Pinochet left," he said. "And while the country has moved on in many ways, there are still tremendous problems in terms of unexplained situations like affected more than a thousand people who disappeared under Pinochet's rule, the vast majority of whose fate is still unknown."
Augusto Pinochet Ugarte was born in the Chilean port-city of Valparaiso on November 25, 1915. He joined the army and rose quickly through the officer corps. In June 1973 at a time of economic and political unrest in Chile, elected Socialist President Salvador Allende made General Pinochet his commander-in-chief.
Just three-months later, and with the encouragement of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, General Pinochet led a coup d'etat against the Allende government and began a purge of government supporters and other left-leaning individuals.
The military junta closed congress, suspended political activity, and imposed censorship. The general and his supporters have defended these extreme steps as necessary to thwart a communist take-over of the country. Even today, Sebastian Brett with Human Rights Watch, says there are Chileans who believe General Pinochet
saved their country.
"The people who would defend him down the line are a tiny, tiny minority now," added Brett. "But on the other hand, I think there quite a lot more people who would say that he did bad things but that they had to be done."
The Pinochet government backed away from the socialist economic policies of the Allende government and sold state enterprises and encouraged a vigorous, open-market economy.
Ian Vasquez, Director of the Project on Global Economic Liberty at the Cato Institute in Washington, says General Pinochet's economic policies paved the way for Chile's economic success today.
"His economic team's policies of high growth and modernization really set Chile apart from the rest of Latin America. And it set it on a path to developed country status," commented Vasquez. "His policies have been so successful that they have really served as a model for countries around the world, including the United States where the discussions of reforming social security are based on the successful Chilean pension reform."
After surviving an assassination attempt in 1986, the Chilean leader held a plebiscite two years later to see if voters would support him for another eight years in power. A majority voted "no." Elections were held in 1989 and General Pinochet's candidate lost.
The general surrendered the presidency but remained in command of the army. He held that post until 1998 when he finally relinquished it and took up a parliamentary seat as senator-for-life, which granted him immunity from prosecution.
But that invincibility was shattered in October 1998 when London police arrested General Pinochet on a Spanish warrant. After a protracted legal battle, a British judge ruled him unfit to stand trial and he returned to Chile.
General Pinochet's legal battles continued in Chile when the country's Supreme Court stripped him of his immunity in August 2000 and a judge later declared him fit to stand trial. The charges against him were dropped in July 2001 on grounds of his declining health.
In November 2003, in what he called his last television interview, General Pinochet spoke at length with a reporter from a Miami-based Spanish language television station, Canal 22.
He said his conscience is clear and that he does not regret anything. He denied murdering anybody or ordering the killing of anyone. That would be an aberration he said. General Pinochet said that he is a Christian first, then the rest.
These and other remarks led a Chilean judge, Juan Guzman, to rule in December 2004 that the former strongman was mentally fit to stand trial on murder and kidnapping charges.
In 2005, Gen. Pinochet was facing charges related to the murder of one Chilean and the disappearance of nine others as part of Operation Condor, a conspiracy by six South American dictatorships in the 1970s to hunt down and kill their left-wing opponents. He was also under investigation by Chilean authorities for tax fraud and money laundering.