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‘Tata’ to friends, tyrant to others

Santiago (Chile), Dec. 10 (Reuters): Augusto Pinochet dominated Chile for 17 years and polarised it until the end of his life — the archetypal dictator reviled by most for his repressive rule but loved by some for his anti-communist crusade.

In his final years before his death today, Pinochet was feeble, politically irrelevant and facing charges related to the deaths of thousands of political rivals, but he still aroused strong passions in the country he ruled from 1973 to 1990.

As his lawyers fought off lawsuits filed by relatives of people killed by his secret police in the 1970s, his admirers sang his praises, crediting him for saving the country from Marxism and putting Chile on the road to economic strength.

But even ardent loyalists began to lose faith when it came out in 2004 that Pinochet had stashed millions of dollars in secret bank accounts that he never reported to tax authorities.

Pinochet came to power in a bloody 1973 military coup that ousted elected socialist President Salvador Allende and was encouraged by the US.

During his regime more than 3,000 people died or disappeared due to political violence in Chile, which had enjoyed a long history of democratic rule.

An estimated 200,000 people fled into exile to escape repression, persecution, torture, curfews and censorship, while Pinochet’s secret police spearheaded Operation Condor, a coordinated effort by South American dictators to assassinate dissidents in each another’s countries.

After surrendering the presidency, Pinochet served as head of the military and then a senator for life. But he grew politically irrelevant as right-wing politicians distanced themselves from their former role model in their search for centrist votes, and the military acknowledged human rights abuses even if it did not apologise for them.

In his last years, the white-haired “Tata” (grandpa) as his friends called him, stayed out of the public eye, but could not escape controversy. His reputation as a ruthless but corruption-free strongman crumbled in the bank accounts scandal.

At the time of his death, courts were probing whether the wealth was legitimate and going after the general for tax fraud.

Outsiders were often surprised to find that more than a third of Chileans loved the unrepentant patriarch and devout Roman Catholic, who in a rare 2003 television interview said he was a democrat and felt like an angel.

Supporters argue Pinochet put Chile on track to become Latin America’s model economy. In the 1980s, he let US-trained economists guide the economy, selling off state companies and cutting government spending, which ushered in a decade of expansion in the 1990s.

“It may take several future generations for people to understand my father and give him the place in history he deserves... and recognise him as a great man who gave everything for his country,” Pinochet’s eldest son, also named Augusto, told Reuters in 2003.

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