The years of his rule as president and dictator (1973–90) saw large-scale human rights abuses by the Chilean military, with an estimated 3,200 dissidents killed and disappeared, and thousands more imprisoned, tortured, and exiled.
The 17 years of his dictatorship also saw major neoliberal reforms of the country’s economy, as promoted by the "Chicago Boys", that resulted in the privatization of many state industries and entitlement programs—most notably the social security system—and that severely circumscribed the role of the state in the national economy. A polarizing figure, revered by some and decried by others, Pinochet left a complex legacy of state repression and radical economic reform with which Chileans continue to grapple.
Born in the Pacific port city of Valparaiso on November 25, 1915, the son of a custom’s inspector, Pinochet graduated from Santiago’s military academy in 1937. In 1971 he was appointed to the key post of commander of the Santiago army garrison.
In the midst of rising social and political tensions sparked by Allende’s socialist policies, Pinochet garnered the trust of the president, who in August 1973 named him commander in chief of the army.
Three weeks later Pinochet led the coup that resulted in Allende’s overthrow and imposition of military dictatorship. The months following the coup were the most violent of the regime, with tens of thousands of Allende supporters rounded up, interrogated, and imprisoned, and hundreds executed.
Among the most enduring images of the Pinochet dictatorship was the scene in the Santiago’s main sports stadium in late 1973, used as a clearinghouse for recently arrested prisoners, with a sunglasses-clad Pinochet overseeing the detention and interrogation process.
In 1980 a new constitution made the nation’s military the "guarantors of institutionality" and imposed a range of limitations on citizens’ political activities. In 1988 a plebiscite showed a solid majority opposed to continuing dictatorship, and in 1990 he stepped aside to permit national elections and a return to democratic government.
The human rights violations of the Pinochet regime were documented in the final report of the National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation (the Truth Commission, or Rettig Report), presented in February 1991 to then-President Patricio Aylwin.
On stepping down as army chief, Pinochet was granted a permanent seat in the country’s Senate, immunizing him from prosecution. Human rights activists pursued a novel legal strategy by charging him for genocide, torture, and kidnapping in a Spanish court. In October 1998 he was arrested in Britain on the charges. There ensued a 16-month legal battle over the Spanish court’s extradition order.
In 2000 he returned to Chile and was declared unfit to stand trial due to mental and physical ailments. Living the rest of his life in seclusion with his family, dogged by lawsuits and legal charges, he died on December 10, 2006. Public opinion polls after his death showed that slightly more than half of Chileans believed that he should have been prosecuted for his regime’s human rights violations.