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The World: The Military and Its Master

4 minute read

“I hope the army will not have to come out, because if it does, it will be to kill.” When General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte issued that grim warning in 1971, it sent shock waves across Chile.

The general, who was then commander of the Santiago garrison, had been asked by President Allende to help quell disorders in the province, and Chileans were not used to hearing threats from their generals. After a brief state of emergency the situation was resolved without bloodshed, and Pinochet went back to his barracks. But not, as it turned out, to stay. Named commander in chief of the army only three weeks ago, the powerfully built infantry officer, 57, last week presided over the coup as head of a four-man military junta.

Despite the army’s recent reputation for staying out of politics, Chile’s history contains numerous examples of military meddling. Ever since it gained its independence from Spain in 1818, the country has been periodically racked by economic strife and class warfare, with the military entering the fray on one side or the other. In 1891, civil war broke out when part of the armed forces sided with a progressive President, Jose Manuel Balmaceda (who committed suicide when he lost), and part with a Congress determined to block his reforms. Allende frequently drew parallels between Balmaceda’s plight and his own.

Then in 1924 another reformist, President Arturo Alessandri, who was also stymied by a conservative Congress, was deposed and exiled to Italy by a junta. The next few years saw a series of military coups and countercoups. After a period of dictatorial rule under Colonel Carlos Ibanez degenerated into economic chaos, Alessandri, by then a convert to the conservatives, was re-elected in 1932. Since then, the armed forces have generally been ruled by the theory that as long as the President kept to the constitution they would respect his authority.

Chileans frequently observe that they have a Prussian army, a British navy and an American air force−and indeed, foreign influences like goose-stepping are visible in each. Until World War I, when the army was strongly influenced by its German tutors, most of the officers came from the aristocratic landowning class. Today the vast majority of both officers and recruits come from the middle and lower classes.

The Pentagon, which has maintained warm relations with the Chilean armed forces, regards them as among the best on the continent. The 90,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and carabineros add up to an unusually large military contingent for a country with a population of 10 million. Argentina, with a population more than twice as large, has only 145,000 in its armed forces.

The Chilean military−notably the navy−has a reputation for maintaining stern, even brutal discipline. That may not bode too well for the immediate future, since General Pinochet is a tough and energetic commander, as well as a stickler for army regulations. Born in Valparaiso−Allende’s home town−Pinochet (pronounced pee-no-chet) entered the army’s military academy at the age of 18. He has been to the U.S. Southern Command in the Panama Canal Zone several times, and in 1956 served as military attache to the Chilean embassy in Washington. Although a number of Chile’s top-ranking officers are Masons, the junta leader, who is married and the father of five children, is a practicing Catholic. Generally he is regarded as a colorless professional who tends to be conservative. Until last week, he had never seemed very interested in political matters. But that, along with much else in Chilean life, is certain to change in the hard months ahead.

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