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The Independent, 5.3.00

'Loyal' general had fooled Allende, too. By Colin Harding

If Pinochet really has been pulling the wool over everybody's eyes, it is not for the first time. He has a long track record of concealing his true nature and intentions beneath a disarmingly straightforward exterior. Almost 30 years ago this gift for dissimulation put him in a position to overthrow the elected socialist President, Salvador Allende, and then see off the military colleagues and rivals who made the fatal mistake of underestimating him.

As Chile descended into chaos in late 1973, and rumours of coup plots flew around Santiago, the embattled Allende turned to Pinochet to keep the military in line. He was the obvious choice as army commander: a professional officer with an impeccable, if unimaginative, record and no known political convictions. He had remained aloof from the conspiracies, telling all and sundry that the armed forces had no business dabbling in politics.

On 23 August 1973 Pinochet was sworn in as commander of the army, with instructions to identify and discipline barrack-room plotters. Instead, he made himself their leader. Within three weeks he had led a bloody coup d'etat, Allende was dead and Pinochet was set on a course that was to make him the unchallenged ruler of Chile for 17 years.

Rebellious officers were almost as surprised by the turn of events as the civilian politicians. Nobody had bothered to include Pinochet in the conspiratorial meetings, as they assumed he was loyal to President Allende.

Later, Pinochet explained that he had been planning to unseat Allende for some months, but he had kept his intentions secret from everybody, including his brother officers. After all, left-wingers were everywhere, even in the army, and if he was to save Chile from the "diabolical Marxists" he had to be as cunning as they were.

Once he had committed himself to the conspirators, he moved quickly to seize the initiative from the other members of the junta, while also asserting himself as commander of the army.

He achieved both aims with a mixture of deviousness and ruthless determination that were a revelation to those who had known him in an earlier incarnation. In June 1974 he had himself declared Supreme Chief of the Nation, and nobody could touch him.

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