Augusto Pinochet was a ruthless dictator who, with the CIA’s help, overthrew the democratically elected government of Chile in 1973. But what did the CIA really think of Pinochet? Newly released biographic reports use words like “warm,” “mild-mannered,” and “businesslike.”
I recently filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the CIA’s biographic reports on Pinochet from 1972 to 1976. Pinochet’s regime oversaw the torture, rape, murder, and disappearance of thousands of Chileans during his rule from 1973 until 1990. But his anti-communist attitudes were enough to make him a strong American ally for almost two decades.
Pinochet’s dictatorship institutionalized acts of domestic terrorism through murder and rape in at least 17 torture centers across the country. Yet the CIA’s reports from 1976 claim that while he’s “not a charismatic man, he is nevertheless genuinely popular in Chile.” It also notes Pinochet’s hatred for Senator Ted Kennedy, who wanted to stop the flow of American money to Chile.
The CIA’s biographic report, dated April 28, 1976, acknowledges that while Pinochet can be “outwardly tough” and “rigid” he’s also “warm and fatherly.” Again, the CIA is talking about a man with domestic centers where at least 35,000 people were subjected to brutal physical and psychological torture, and systematic rape.
One of the most interesting quirks in the reports is that the CIA repeatedly insists that Pinochet has no real interest in politics, but then goes on to explain how the dictator plans to wipe out any trace of Marxist influence in the country. Apparently, in the eyes of the CIA, one can be “not political” while trying to destroy anyone with a very specific set of political ideas they don’t agree with.
Another fascinating aspect of the file comes from November, 1974—one year after the bloody coup that ousted socialist President Salvador Allende in September 1973. As shown below, the CIA formerly redacted portions of that file that called Pinochet “quiet,” “mild-mannered,” and “businesslike.” They also redacted portions of the file that referred to his drinking and smoking.
Peter Kornbluh, a reporter from The National Security Archive who helped expose just how substantial the CIA’s involvement in the 1973 coup was, published an earlier version of that file in 2006, shortly after Pinochet died. But Kornbluh’s version had some redactions about Pinochet’s personal life, as you can see below.
The CIA reports note again and again just how “apolitical” Pinochet was. But one version of the biographic report from May 1976, and newly released to Gizmodo, describes Pinochet as an “inflexible anti-Communist.”
A man known for his toughness, he will not tolerate any opposition to the government.
[Augusto Pinochet] is an inflexible anti-Communist, and dislikes politicians of all persuasions, blaming them for the chaos that necessitated the Allende overthrow.
The CIA then acknowledges in the same report that international critics consider Pinochet to be “the personification of all the evils they see in Chile.” How does the CIA feel about this? The files generally have a tone of condescension, calling him “unsophisticated in international relations” when it comes to human rights. But the agency is clearly defensive on his behalf, even using the word “abusive” to describe “personal criticism from abroad.”
Pinochet left power in 1990, allowing Chile to ostensibly become a democracy, while leaving some of his top torturers in power with police positions. But in an extraordinary move, prosecutors in Spain tried to extradite Pinochet in October of 1998 while he was having surgery in London.
Pinochet was arrested, which set off an international firestorm as a criminal head of state was about to be brought to justice. He remained under house arrest in England for over a year, where he even received friendly guests like Margaret Thatcher. But political wrangling by British politicians, in opposition to their own High Court, ultimately allowed Pinochet to flee to Chile in March of 2000. Pinochet died in 2006.
On a related note, Henry Kissinger—the American who helped orchestrate the 1973 Chilean coup, starting with the assassination of a top military officer in 1970—is still walking around a free man.
I’ve uploaded all the CIA biographic reports from 1972-1976 here.