Chileâ€™s current status as one of Latin America's strongest economic performers owes much to the policies of its 30th president, Augusto Pinochet, who ruled from 1973 to 1990. However, Pinochet is more infamous for his ruthless 17-year regime during which countless opponents and their families disappeared.
Born Augusto JosĂ© RamĂłn Pinochet Ugarte in ValparaĂso in 1915, Pinochet studied in a military academy and rose quickly through the ranks of the army. He came to power violently in a CIA-backed military coup, overthrowing Marxist president Salvador Allende in September, 1973, one month after Allende had appointed him commander-in-chief of the army. Governing as the head of a military junta, Pinochet quickly consolidated power, assuming the presidency in December, 1974. He broke up Congress and suspended the constitution; banned political parties, arrested dissidents, muzzled the media and hiked military spending. Around 3,000 people were killed, tens of thousands tortured, and many jailed or forced into exile. In an effort to revamp the nationâ€™s economy, Pinochet instituted a series of free-market reforms, including privatization and the elimination of trade barriers. While this helped to stabilize the country, Pinochetâ€™s cuts to social spending resulted in widespread inequality.
Pinochet remained in office through the recession-filled '80s, sworn in under a dubiously approved new constitution. He also survived an assassination attempt. Facing intense opposition at home and from abroad, he legalized political parties. In 1988 his attempt to stay in office eight more years was rejected by voters in a referendum, and the next year he lost the countryâ€™s first democratic election in 19 years, in 1989. Pinochet left office but stayed on as military general and a senator, which gave him lifetime immunity from criminal prosecution. Attempts to prosecute Pinochet and his security forces for their alleged human rights violations were repeatedly quashed. The former president claimed his actions had been necessary to strengthen the country and protect it from the threat of communism.
Pinochet's final years were marked by judicial wrangling. In October 1998, while recovering from back surgery in London, a Spanish judge issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of torture and conspiracy to commit torture against Spanish citizens in Chile while in power. Days later, another warrant was issued, adding murder, illegal detention, and forced disappearances to the list of charges; British police placed him under house arrest. Later that month, the House of Lords ruled that Pinochet couldnâ€™t be prosecuted because he was a head of state at the time the alleged crimes occurred. An appeal was launched and the court ruled that Pinochet was, in fact, not immune. However, one of the five judges assigned to the case had failed to disclose ties to Amnesty International and a new hearing was ordered. In March of 1999, a ruling fell that Pinochet could be extradited to Spain to face charges, but in March, 2000 he suffered two strokes and the British home secretary deemed him unfit to stand trial. Extradition warrants from Spain, Switzerland, Belgium and France were thrown out and, finally, Pinochet returned to Chile, welcomed by thousands of supporters and a brass band.
In 2000, he was indicted for a series of 1973 executions. These charges were dismissed when a medical report revealed that the former general was suffering from dementia and memory loss. Pinochet then gave up his senate postâ€”a 2000 constitutional amendment allows for an ex-president to receive immunity from prosecution and a guaranteed allowance in exchange for giving up a seat in the senate, however an appeals court soon stripped him of his immunity. In 2004, the Supreme Court overturned its decision, claiming Pinochet was in good enough health to stand trial. Allegations also arose that a U.S. bank had helped Pinochet hoard millions of dollars, and he was indicted on charges of tax evasion and placed under house arrest.
The legal tug-o-war continued as a sequestered Pinochet continued to oppose efforts to bring him before a judge. More indictments piled on for kidnappings, tortures, and assassinations. In 2006, on his 91st birthday, Pinochet admitted political responsibility for his actions. On December 10th of that year he died from heart complications after having suffered a heart attack. He was never tried for the more than 300 charges of human rights violations and embezzlement filed against him.
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