Life was worse than fiction, October 17, 1972. A curfew had been imposed and tear gas poisoned the air. Spurred by “sheer momentum, in the words of onlookers, the spread of protests had “snowballed” from a general strike begun by truck owners the prior week. The distraught had since been joined by bank employees, civil engineers, doctors and dentists – all middle class. Their grievances were born of price controls imposed following the nationalization of banks, mines and strategic industries. The government had moved in to distribute food and goods. Production was collapsing, bread and milk were in short supply and inflation was skyrocketing. President Salvador Allende Gossens’ failed Marxist state was collapsing. To enforce the state of emergency declared, Allende called upon his garrison commander, General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. Arrests of several hundred demonstrators on both the left and the right followed, and Pinochet announced, “I will not tolerate agents of chaos no matter what their political ideology.” Reassured by his ostensible neutrality, in August 1973, Allende elevated Pinochet to commander in chief of Chile’s army.
On September 11, 1973, in the Palacio de La Moneda, Allende turned an AK-47 rifle, gifted by Fidel Castro, on himself, committing suicide rather than suffer the humiliation at the hand of the ruthless traitor who had executed the coup d’état. Inscribed on the rifle was the following: “To my good friend Salvador from Fidel, who by different means tries to achieve the same goals.” The means by which Pinochet achieved his insidious aims, seeded with the backing of the U.S. government, are a stain on humanity. Within months, thousands of suspected leftists were executed or joined the ranks of the “desaparecidos,” or disappeared. The mystery will never be solved. but some press accounts place the number of prisoners detained at the notorious National Stadium as high as 40,000. While the luckiest of hundreds of thousands were exiled, there is a special place in hell reserved for members of the National Intelligence Directorate, or DINA, who tortured 28,000 by methods too grisly to recount. During Pinochet’s tenure, more than 3,200 were killed or disappeared.
Providence provided some reprieve for the people of Chile in the form of technocrats who had studied with Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman. Months before the coup, this group of advisors to Pinochet conceived a radical plan to overhaul the country’s crippled economy. The free-market policies put in place effectively reversed the damage socialism had inflicted – trade barriers were removed, state industries privatized, export growth encouraged, and an independent and apolitical central bank established. In the midst of some of the worst human rights violations in the history of mankind, a Latin American economic miracle came of age. Pinochet’s strong-arm tactics were even applied to the economy, repressing any union leanings that surfaced and allowing the necessary time to transform Chile to a free-market economy. Since then, the country has enjoyed the steadiest growth in the region.
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