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Former Chilean dictator Pinochet dies at 91

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.

Decades later, attempts to prosecute Pinochet at home and abroad in the final years of his life set a precedent likely to be felt across the globe: that there is no statute of limitations on human rights abuses.

Thousands filled the streets of Santiago on Sunday after the announcement of his death, both weeping supporters and some critics, most peacefully marking his passing, though a few scuffles were reported.

Pinochet seized power on 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. Amid intense social strife, the military coup toppled elected socialist President Salvador Allende, and Pinochet emerged as the leader of the junta, recognized almost immediately by the Nixon administration. He ruled until 1990.

The Cold War is the context in which Pinochet will be remembered: He wore a scowl, dark sunglasses and in his ruthless fight against communism in South America once boasted, "Not a leaf moves in Chile without my knowing about it."

He 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 each other'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."

Yet dozens of Pinochet's supporters appeared outside the Hospital Militar in the capital of Santiago after his heart attack last week to bid him an emotional 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 outside the hospital. "What Chile is today is due to Pinochet."

One Pinochet legacy has a brighter side—he brought economic prosperity to Chile. Under him, Chile did away with most labor unions and revamped its economy with market-friendly advice from University of Chicago economists dubbed "The Chicago Boys."

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. Chile became an exporter of grapes, wine, salmon—three Chilean products always in U.S. supermarkets. Chile has in recent years signed free trade agreements with the United States, China and other countries.

"In a way he epitomizes Latin American dictators, except he was a very successful dictator, and I think that's what stands out," said Chilean historian Alfredo Jocelyn-Holt. "People who think highly of Pinochet insist he brought about (economic) revolution before Thatcher and Reagan. For the right wing, Pinochet is thought of as very significant."

But like much in Pinochet's 17-year rule, the transformation came with an asterisk attached. Many of Chile's gains came through undemocratic means. For example, Chile's maturation into an important timber and forestry exporter came at the expense of indigenous Mapuches, who under Pinochet saw land restoration programs reversed and who lost collective lands that were their ancestral tradition.

Pinochet died at the hospital, his family at his side.

He was at the time of his death the subject of six prosecutions, four for human rights violations and two for financial corruption.

Two weeks ago, at his 91st birthday party on Nov. 25, 2006, Pinochet's wife read a statement from the general in which he for the first time took "full political responsibility for what happened" during his government. The statement said he had acted with "no other goal than making Chile greater and avoiding its disintegration."

Official estimates show Pinochet's government executed 3,197 people for political reasons, more than 1,000 of them people who disappeared.

Ironically, Pinochet died on Human Rights Day, the annual anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly's 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The former ruler was under house arrest at the time of his death after being indicted for the kidnappings and executions of two Allende security guards shortly after the 1973 coup.

In October, he was indicted for abuses at the Villa Grimaldi detention center in Santiago, where hundreds were held and tortured. The country's current socialist President Michelle Bachelet and her mother were among those sent to Villa Grimaldi.

Many of Pinochet's supporters, who remained loyal for years, abandoned the ex-dictator in 2004 after news broke that he had amassed some $28 million in foreign bank accounts. Pinochet's former spy chief Gen. Manuel Contreras said the money came from arms and drug trafficking, which Pinochet's family denied.

Pinochet managed to escape numerous prosecutions for health reasons, although human rights groups accused him of faking his illnesses. He suffered several strokes and was diagnosed with diabetes and, according to his doctors, mild dementia.

The Bachelet government decided to give him a funeral as a former head of the military and not as former head of state. According to the Chilean military, he will receive a funeral Mass 11 a.m. Tuesday at the country's military academy in Santiago, and his body will be cremated. There will also be memorial services Monday.

Born on Nov. 25, 1915, in Valparaiso, Pinochet seem destined for anything but fame when it took him three tries to win acceptance at Chile's prestigious national military academy Escuela Militar. He graduated four years later as a second lieutenant in the infantry, rising through the ranks to become a professor at his alma matter in 1951, teaching geopolitics. Pinochet's interest in geopolitical strategy would be shown later as he and archrival Cuban dictator Fidel Castro jockeyed for influence in the Americas.

Pinochet served in important posts throughout Chile and abroad in Ecuador, and was tapped by Allende as armed forces commander on Aug. 23, 1973, after months of coup rumors. He replaced Gen. Carlos Prats, who had resigned. Officials in neighboring Argentina have accused Pinochet of plotting the September 1974 car bombing in Buenos Aires that killed Prats and his wife Sofia Cuthbert.

Pinochet burst onto the international stage with the dramatic 1973 coup, which included the haunting Air Force bombing of the La Moneda presidential palace and the apparent suicide of Allende with an AK-47 assault rifle that was reportedly a present from Castro.

Pinochet's government was also believed responsible for the 1976 assassination of former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier in Washington, D.C.

Pinochet's 1980 constitution formally installed him as president of the country. He survived a September 1986 assassination attempt by Marxists before losing a national referendum on his rule in October 1988. He agreed to return Chile to civilian rule with elections in 1989 and finally transferred power to Patricio Aylwin Azocar in March 1990.

However, the strongman continued to cast a long shadow over Chilean politics as commander of the armed forces, a post he held until 1998 when he stepped down and became a senator-for-life. He menaced elected leaders from the sidelines until his Oct. 16, 1998, arrest in London in response to a Spanish extradition request.

British Home Secretary Jack Straw set Pinochet free on March 2, 2000, and he returned to Chile to face criminal complaints that numbered more than 300 at the time of his death. After losing his immunity from prosecution as a senator-for-life on July 25, 2000, Pinochet faced prosecution efforts for the Caravan of Death—the name given to death squads that roamed Chile carrying out summary trials and executions in the first weeks of his rule.

In 2002, the country's Supreme Court declared Pinochet too infirm to face Caravan of Death prosecutions but reversed itself this July, clearing the way for Pinochet's indictment for the killings of Allende's security guards.

At the end of his life, the ex-dictator saw his sway over Chile diminish as the country entered its 17th year under the center-left Concertacion coalition. Yet Sunday's outpouring of support for him on the streets of Santiago and the worldwide impact of his death showed that his legacy remained enduring and complicated.

"He is a mythical figure and as such he will never die," Jocelyn-Holt said. "Neither demons nor gods die, they simply pass away until someone erects them."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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