SANTIAGO, Chile – Hounded by human rights groups until the end and defended with equal zeal by the armed forces, Chile’s controversial former dictator Augusto Pinochet Ugarte died Sunday from complications after suffering a heart attack last week. He was 91.
History likely will remember Pinochet as a figure with twin legacies: His bloody right-wing rule and defense against Soviet and Cuban communism changed the fate of not only Chile but also its neighbors in the southern cone of South America.
Thousands filled the streets of Santiago on Sunday after the announcement of his death, both weeping supporters and critics. Violent clashes broke out between police and Pinochet opponents who threw rocks at cars and set up fire barricades on the city’s main avenue. Police said 23 officers were injured and reported a number of arrests.
Pinochet seized power Sept. 11, 1973, in a bloody U.S.-backed coup that was aided in the planning stages by the CIA, according to U.S. documents released in 2000. The military coup toppled elected socialist President Salvador Allende, and Pinochet emerged as the leader of the junta, recognized quickly by the Nixon administration. He ruled until 1990.
Pinochet executed socialist and communist leaders and interrogated and often tortured tens of thousands of Chileans and foreign nationals suspected of subversion. He also forged close ties with dictatorships in neighboring Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina to create Operation Condor, in which the countries’ intelligence agencies traded information on leftists and detained one another’s nationals for return, torture and often death.
Pinochet set the model for a take-no-prisoners approach to communism with widespread human rights abuses, but in his final days he suffered the consequences of his excesses, hit with prosecution attempts that brought relief to victims’ families and angered supporters – who lovingly called him “my general.”
“He did a great evil in this country,” said attorney Hugo Gutierrez, who represented the relatives of dictatorship-era victims in cases against Pinochet. “The only legacy he will leave is that social conflicts must be solved in peaceful ways and not with the insanity that Pinochet brought to Chile.”
Official estimates show Pinochet’s government executed 3,197 people for political reasons, more than 1,000 of them people who disappeared.
Yet dozens of Pinochet’s supporters appeared outside the Hospital Militar in Santiago after his heart attack last week to bid him farewell.
“He had the strength and courage to save us from a civil war and from becoming a second Cuba,” said Santiago resident Silvia Perez De Arce. “What Chile is today is due to Pinochet.”
One legacy has a brighter side – he brought economic prosperity to Chile. To this end, Chile under Pinochet did away with most labor unions and revamped its economy with market-friendly advice from University of Chicago economists.
He launched ambitious economic incentives that transformed the country into the region’s most stable economy and brought him support from a large segment of Chilean society.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.