On This Day

Augusto Pinochet, pinochet, pinochet coup
Associated Press
Gen. Augusto Pinochet, center, presides over a meeting with his military staff in Santiago, Chile, Sept. 20, 1973, 11 days after seizing power from President Salvador Allende.

On This Day: Pinochet Seizes Power in Chile

September 11, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Sept. 11, 1973, Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s military junta overthrew the democratically elected Chilean government of socialist leader Salvador Allende, beginning 17 years of torturous rule.

Pinochet Overthrows Allende

Salvador Allende, a member of the Marxist Popular Unity coalition, won the Chilean presidential election in 1970, becoming the first democratically elected Marxist leader in Latin America.

He nationalized the copper industry and other businesses, raised wages for workers, and increased benefits for the poor. But his tenure was marked by frequent workers strikes, high inflation and decreased foreign investment. He began losing popular support, and his opposition, encouraged by the United States Central Intelligence Agency, became more severe.

The Chilean military was particularly resistant to Allende. In June 1973, Col. Roberto Souper launched a coup against Allende, leading a column of tanks to the presidential palace. The coup was put down, but it was clear that Allende was vulnerable.

“Thereafter, the armed forces prepared for a massive coup by stepping up raids to search for arms among Popular Unity's supporters,” according to the Library of Congress’ “Chile: A Country Study.” Allende’s political opponents called for him to resign, threatening military intervention if he did not.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the newly appointed commander-in-chief of the army, launched a coup along with Adm. Jose Toribio Merino, the head of the navy, and Gen. Gustavo Leigh, the head of the air force. The military seized control of the country and cut off many forms of communication, forcing Allende to retreat inside his presidential palace in Santiago.

Rebel troops overpowered Allende’s guards and fighter jets bombed the palace. Allende decided to commit suicide rather than surrender, killing himself with an assault rifle.

Pinochet and his allies moved to fortify their power through a campaign of brutal repression against Allende’s leftist supporters. “Resistance was soon crushed, left-wing political parties were banned, censorship was imposed, the universities were purged, and left-wing politicians and union leaders were repressed,” writes The Times of London. An estimated 3,000 died or disappeared in the following weeks.

Pinochet’s Reign

The military junta of Pinochet, Leigh, Merino and Gen. Cesar Mendoza suspended Congress, outlawed left-wing parties, purged universities, suspended the constitution and imposed a night-time curfew.

Pinochet assumed leadership of the junta and would be named president in December 1974. He instituted broad policy reforms, reshaping the economy to adhere to free-market principles by returning nationalized companies to their original owners and cutting trade barriers to spur foreign imports. In contrast to Allende’s socialist rule, it was Pinochet’s stated goal “to make Chile not a nation of proletarians, but a nation of entrepreneurs.”

In 1976, the world took notice of Pinochet’s violent tactics when a former Chilean ambassador under Allende and an American associate were assassinated in Washington, D.C., by a car bomb planted by Pinochet’s secret police. The event triggered an FBI investigation that uncovered some of Pinochet’s crimes and eventually contributed to his downfall.

In the late 1980s, Pinochet’s government made a transition to civilian rule that was aimed at giving it influence over future governments and immunity from the law. He gave up the presidency in 1990, but remained influential while continuing to be commander-in-chief and later becoming senator-for-life.

In 1998, while in Britain for medical care, he was arrested for human rights abuses against Spanish citizens. He avoided extradition to Spain, but he had his immunity revoked when he returned to Chile in 2000.

In 2006, he was indicted and declared mentally competent to undergo trial. However, he died on Dec. 10, 2006, avoiding ever being punished for his unspeakable crimes.

Analysis: The Role of the United States

President Nixon and his administration had been opposed to Allende since he was elected. Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his national security advisor, had hoped to prevent the inauguration, fearing that a successful Marxist government would lead to the spread of similar governments.

In a briefing given by Kissinger to Nixon, he wrote, “the imitative spread of similar phenomena elsewhere would in turn significantly affect the world balance and our own position in it.”

Though it could not stop the inauguration, the U.S. did make life difficult for Allende, cutting off funding to Chile and providing support to his enemies. The extent of the CIA’s involvement in Pinochet’s coup was revealed in 1998-2000, when thousands documents of that era were declassified.

A report released by the CIA in 2000 states, “CIA actively supported the military Junta after the overthrow of Allende. Many of Pinochet’s officers were involved in systematic and widespread human rights abuses. … Some of these were contacts or agents of the CIA or US military.”

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