Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet died of complications from a heart attack Sunday at age 91. His death has cheated justice, snatching him from the material world just as he faced the possibility of standing trial for the murder of two bodyguards of his predecessor, President Salvador Allende.
A neatly timed exit, considering the former general was also facing charges on how and why he stashed as much as $17 million in overseas accounts, as well as continuing judicial investigations into numerous human rights atrocities that took place during the bloody and dark period of his rule that stretched from 1973 until 1990.
But Pinochet’s demise doesn’t save him from the harsh judgment of history. He dies not only decrepit and politically abandoned in a Santiago hospital but also discredited and reviled. His very name has come to rightfully symbolize and encapsulate all of the horrors and fears associated with brutal, dictatorial regimes.
It’s not just the numbers, though they are horrific in themselves. In a country of barely 11 million at the time of his seizure of power, 3,000 were murdered by the state, more than a thousand disappeared (some of them thrown into the ocean, others into pits of lime), tens of thousands were tortured and hundreds of thousands sent into political or economic exile.
Pinochet also embodied a wave of authoritarianism that swept through all of Latin America during the time of his rule. Similar dictatorships imposed their own brand of fear as they clamped down on Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru.
Encouraged by the Reagan Administration in Washington and rising Thatcherism in Europe, these military regimes instituted a savage free-market capitalism, in many cases reversing decades of carefully constructed social welfare reforms. At gunpoint unions were outlawed, labor laws were abolished, universities were stifled, tuition was hiked, national healthcare and social security programs were privatized, and these already unequal societies were rigidly stratified into rich and poor, strong and weak, the favored and the invisible.
Pinochet even attempted to build a new Terror International by setting up what became known as Operation Condor. Established in Santiago, the short-lived network aimed at making repression and murder more efficient through increased coordination, information-sharing and joint secret operations among the allied dictatorships. The most prominent victims of this alliance in murder were former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier and his associate Ronni Moffett, blown apart by a 1976 car bomb in downtown Washington, DC–a bomb set by Pinochet’s dreaded secret police, known as DINA.