An Interview with John R. Bawden


After diligent research on Chile’s government under the Pinochet regime, we found John R. Bawden’s book, The Pinochet Generation, which describes in great detail Chile’s 1973 coup and resulting dictatorship.

John R. Bawden is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Motevallo where he teaches courses on Latin America, World History, and Historical Methods. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California-Riverside. His areas of research include South American militaries, U.S.-Latin American relations, and the Spanish Conquest. His book, The Pinochet Generation: The Chilean Military in the Twentieth Century, was published by the University of Alabama Press in 2016. Other publications have appeared in The Latin Americanist and The Journal of Latin American Studies.

Nastasia Porras, Daniel Soto, and Christopher Walds

Nastasia Porras, Daniel Soto, Christopher Walds: In what ways was the Chilean government strict under Augusto Pinochet?

John Bawden: Pinochet’s government declared a legal state of siege, meaning the press could be censored. Chilean citizens could be exiled without due process of law. The government could hold suspects without filing charges. Prisoners could be held without a trial. The things that Chileans had come to expect from their democracy disappeared. The military closed the nation’s Congress, banned political activities, and suspended the 1925 constitution. The regime also imposed a daily curfew, which meant people did not enjoy freedom of movement. Anyone on the streets during curfew hours could be detained and arrested. In short, people did not have constitutional protections for much of the dictatorship.

NP & DS & CW: What was the overall reaction of the Chilean people when Pinochet came into control?

JB: There was a wide mixture of reactions, but to generalize approximately 55-60 percent of the Chilean population supported the overthrow of Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973. This segment of the population felt liberated. They believed the government had broken the law and severely mismanaged the economy. At the minimum, Allende seemed unable or unwilling to do anything about the country’s social and political crisis. At worse, his government was deliberately creating conditions to facilitate a Bolshevik coup and the establishment of communist state aligned with Cuba and the Soviet Union. 40-45 percent of the Chilean population felt betrayed and disappointed when the armed forces overthrew Allende. This segment of the population saw Pinochet and his junta as a group of disloyal soldiers who had violated their oaths to defend the constitution. They were traitors and reactionaries who had overthrown a democratically elected government trying to create a more just and equitable Chile.

NP & DS & CW: In what way was the media censored from Chilean citizens?

JB: Dictatorships define the boundaries of acceptable speech. Government censors restricted what could be said on air or in print. The government shut down left wing newspapers and magazines. The government banned books, plays, and movies. Media outlets permitted to operate censored themselves. They did not publicly question the regime’s legitimacy or criticize the government in harsh terms. Keep in mind that Pinochet’s secret police had the power to make arrests and hold people indefinitely. Intimidation and fear guaranteed a broad self-censorship. The dictatorship’s censorship loosened up in the eighties. In March 1981, a new constitution went into effect. After that point, the press generally acquired more freedom to criticize the government and question official policies. In fact, an investigative journalist named Patricia Verdugo published a book in 1985 that detailed the murder of more than seventy Chilean citizens by the army in 1973. The government banned the book, but it was still widely read on black markets.

NP & DS & CW: How was the Pinochet regime different from the regime of Salvador Allende?

JB: Allende led a Marxist coalition that wanted to create a socialist society. Under Allende, Chilean citizens enjoyed the right to assemble in public and speak freely. The Allende era was marked by popular mobilizations, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations. Pinochet led an authoritarian and repressive government that championed free market capitalism. Under Pinochet, Chilean citizens faced restrictions on their speech and movement. The two governments were very different but they both had revolutionary aims. Allende wanted to bring the economy and educational system under state control while preserving certain individual liberties. He admired Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro. Pinochet created an anti-communist political system that diminished the social power of unions and privatized just about everything from health care to retirement accounts. He admired Francisco Franco.

NP & DS & CW: How hostile of a takeover was the Pinochet coup, and can you include certain standalone moments/memories that stand out to you?

JB: The best way for Americans to understand the 1973 takeover is to imagine what it would be like if the United States air force bombed the White House while army tanks moved up and down Pennsylvania Ave in Washington DC. When Salvador Allende refused to surrender, the air force bombed the presidential palace in Santiago. That event had a major psychological effect on the population. Chileans had never seen such jarring political violence. The military government detained thousands of people and held them in soccer stadiums across the country. The military arrested members of Allende’s coalition and conducted aggressive sweeps through working class neighborhoods.

NP & DS & CW: Was there American involvement with the Pinochet coup?

JB: The United States did not supply material support or ground intelligence to the coup’s architects as the movie Missing suggests. That said, Chile’s armed forces knew that they would have American backing if they overthrew Salvador Allende. Richard Nixon’s administration tried to prevent Allende from coming to power in November 1970 and the CIA passed money to Allende’s opposition from 1971-1973.

NP & DS & CW: What was the state of the media after Pinochet’s reign?

JB: After the transition to democracy in March 1990, the country’s political leadership and mainstream media outlets wanted to consolidate a stable political order without upsetting the still powerful military. Investigative journalists brought new details to light from the dictatorship, but the media generally exercised caution. Politicians and journalists did not want to risk a constitutional crisis or military intervention. Pinochet’s detention in London England, beginning in November 1998, changed the media landscape. When Pinochet returned to Chile in 2000, his influence over the political system was greatly diminished. The courts prosecuted officers, including Pinochet, for crimes committed during the dictatorship. People felt more comfortable speaking about the past.

NP & DS & CW: How was the foreign press treated under Pinochet?

JB: The Pinochet regime viewed western journalists with suspicion. Pinochet accused the foreign press of spreading falsehoods and distortions about his country. Mary Helen Spooner, an American journalist who covered Chile during the 1980s wrote a book, Soldiers in a Narrow Land: The Pinochet Regime in Chile, which relates some of her personal stories about press conferences in Chile as well as how Pinochet’s remarks were polished for subsequent publication.

NP & DS & CW: How did Pinochet view the movie Missing?

JB: Pinochet would have regarded Missing as a fabrication and proof of an ongoing propaganda campaign, orchestrated by the Soviet Union and Marxists in the West, to undermine his government. He believed that such negative media resulted from the fact that the Chilean military had delivered a crucial defeat to the international socialist movement.

NP & DS & CW: Is there anything you would like to add?

JB: Understanding what happened in Chile from 1970 to 1990 requires serious study. Allende, the coup, and the dictatorship are often described in simple terms or without proper contextualization. My book, The Pinochet Generation, contributes to the body of historical scholarship on Chile’s late twentieth century experience.