Pinochet Died on Human Rights Day

The fact that a sick 91-year-old man who left power by democratic means sixteen years ago died barely captured my attention over the weekend. The irony, noted by Blake Hounshell, that it happened to be the 58th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is worth noting, however.

I was also somewhat amused this morning that Steve Inskeep and several of his reporters repeatedly referred to Pinochet as “Pee Know CHET” during NPR’s “Morning Edition,” despite the fact that all the experts they brought on referred to him as “Pee Know SHAY.” Considering that I’ve never heard any reporter or other knowledgeable official use the former pronunciation, I found it most odd.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. More like “quasi-democratic means” (at best). Yes, he respected the results of the 1988 referendum (which he set up in hopes of being granted a voter-approved new term in office. The fact that he respected the referendum and left the presidency is noteworthy.

    However, when the power to hold the referendum in the first place is founded in the fact that one came to power via a military coup vitiates (I would argue) the right to call the situation “democratic.”

    Further, Pinochet did not step down from power completely at that point. He remained commander-in-chief of the military until 1998 and then became a Senator for life under the constitution that he wrote. Further, the military as an institution was given substantial (and extraordinary for a democracy) policy-related powers under that constitution. Those prerogatives were not removed until recently (2005).

  2. James Joyner says:

    Fair enough. In the context of brutal dictators, I guess anything short of a coup is at least quasi-democratic.

  3. You will amused to know that when I listened to NPR around 8:00 eastern the host host actually asked an American reporter in Chile what the proper pronunciation of Pinochet was. He noted that he hears both, but that most Chileans go the “SHAY” route and english-speakers the “CHET” route.

  4. Randy Paul says:

    In 2003 in an interview on Chilean television, General Matthei, the commander of the air force at the time of the plebiscite, pointed out that when confronted with the results of the plebiscite and that the “no” (on eight more years of Pinochet) vote was winning, Pinochet told the other commanders (navy, caribineros and the air force) that he wanted to send the troops on the streets. They all told him that they would not support him and he backed down.

    Earlier that evening, when Matthei arrived at La Moneda, the presidential palace, the press raced towards him because the official government account of the election showed results that were not in keeping with what independent observers and the “no” coalition was showing. Matthei responded that it appears that the “no” vote had won and said “We are calm.” All credit to him for having done that.

    Matthei, by the way, became air force commander when Pinochet ousted General Gustavo Leigh. At the beginning of the dictatorship, the air force had a well-deserved reputation for brutality and human rights abuses. Despite this, Leigh was at loggerheads with Pinochet, because Leigh favored a quick return to civilian rule.

  5. Triumph says:

    The fact that a sick 91-year-old man who left power by democratic means sixteen years ago died barely captured by attention over the weekend.

    You have a typo here, but if you’re saying that Pinochet’s death barely captured anyone’s attention, you must not be aware that the story was reported on the front page of:

    The New York Times
    The Los Angeles Times
    The Washington Post
    The International Herald Tribune
    The Miami Herald
    The Guardian
    The Globe and Mail
    It is “above the fold” on Google news.

    These papers had smaller mentions of Pinochet’s death on their front pages:

    USA Today
    The Wall Street Journal
    The Financial Times

    I am not sure how anyone could miss this story since it has received front page coverage in most of the important papers in the Enlgish language.

  6. Randy Paul says:

    Also, shortly after the plebiscite, Pinochet was speaking to a woman’s group and commented on the plebiscite by saying that there was once another plebiscite and the public chose Barabbas. A bit grandiose of him.

  7. James Joyner says:


    It should have said “my attention.” Perhaps it would have been clearer had I said “my interest.”

  8. Triumph says:

    It should have said “my attention.” Perhaps it would have been clearer had I said “my interest.”

    Sorry, it was unclear. It is amazing how much press this story has gotten considering he has essentially been incapacitated for years.

  9. James Joyner says:

    Yeah. Then again, I haven’t quite figured out the fascination about a former KGB agent I never heard of dying of radiation poisoning.

  10. MSS says:

    Remember, he “respected” the referendum of 1988 only after one of the other junta members broke ranks and went public with the fact of the dictator’s defeat. Pinochet was ready to rig it. There was no independent electoral agency (although there were some foreign observers).

    Also, Pinochet’s response to defeat was to force on the opposition a series of constitutional and electoral limits on democracy. Some of these were finally removed within the last year, while other still remain.

  11. James Joyner says:

    MSS: I’m not claiming Pinochet was a democrat–just that there were elections which he ultimately abided by. Chile got rid of him without bloodshed and has gotten on with things for going on two decades (although, as Steve notes, he was a sideline hanger on during a large part of that).