Human Rights NATIONAL

End of era: Pinochet widow Lucía Hiriart dead at 99

SANTIAGO – Lucía Hiriart, widow of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, has died at age 99. Immediately after her death was announced, people celebrated at Plaza Baquedano in the center of Santiago. As one of the last living symbols of the dictatorship, Hiriart died without ever having spent one minute behind bars for her role in the numerous human rights violations committed during Pinochet’s reign.

It was a running gag in Chile: every now and then, people started spreading the news that “La Vieja” had died. The “Black Widow” was seen as immortal, a part of the dictatorship that lived on in Chilean society without being visible, just like the trauma the 17 years brought to many Chileans. She lived well-hidden in her mansion in uptown Santiago, and generally avoided being seen, but the fact that so many Chileans celebrated the news of her death as a sign the days of the dictatorship are truly now over shows the extent to which she represented an open wound in Chile. Presidential candidate Gabriel Boric pointed in a comment to her divisive role and said, “she died in impunity,” while pro-Pinochet candidate José Antonio Kast shied away from condemning her role in the dictatorship.

Besides Hiriar’s insider’s awareness of the human rights violations committed during her husband’s dictatorship, she was repeatedly accused of corruption but never convicted.

As Boric suggested, for many, she was a reminder of all those who got away with the atrocities and indignities committed during the dictatorship – the very widow of the dictator who was hated and feared by many but also inexplicably excused and respected by just as many others.

Photo by Felipe Ignacio González Vásquez

Hiriart’s life

Hiriart was born in Antofagasta, on Dec. 10, 1922. First-born of a wealthy family of Basque and French origins, she moved to the capital when she was 10 years old. This was where she first met her future husband, Augusto Pinochet, in 1941. Pinochet, the future dictator, was then just a second lieutenant, far below the Hiriarts’ status and seven years older than Hiriart. They married on January of 1943, when Hiriart was 21.

Her life, just as many others’ in the country, was marked by the rise of Pinochet as the illegitimate leader of Chile in 1973. After Pinochet attacked La Moneda on Sept. 11 of that year, she escalated to a “First Lady” status. She was put in charge of the National Confederation of Mothers’ Free Centers (CEMA-Chile Foundation), where she created a discourse of women made and educated for home and children; although for Alejandra Matus, Hiriart’s non-authorized biographer, nothing she ever was after her many responsibilities took over.

According to Matus, Hiriart was a strong-tempered woman, who enjoyed being the belle of the ball, who often encouraged her husband on his way up the ladder and ultimately became one of his advisers after he took over as dictator. In an interview with El Clarín, Matus said Pinochet was many times influenced by his wife, who helped him stay strong in the face of the deaths of many in his close circle, and she often stood behind him in the hardest decisions he made during his time in power. Hiriart could never be a submissive woman, and this was all the more apparent during the dictatorship.

As Hiriart’s informal power grew, so did her fortune and public recognition. According to The Clinic, her right-hand man, DINA Director Manuel Contreras, followed behind her and obeyed every one of her commands.

Photo by Felipe Ignacio González Vásquez

A dictatorship’s legacy

When the dictatorship ended, the impunity remained. In 2004, an investigation into Pinochet’s abuse of public funds extended to Riggs Bank in the United States. Pinochet had control over numerous bank accounts, which he used to illegally divert and keep money during the dictatorship. Chilean courts tried to seize the funds, but Hiriart tried to set aside the seizure. Ultimately, the bank was forced to pay a fine for helping the dictator embezzle funds.

In 2016, Hiriart renounced CEMA Foundation, after it was discovered by Ciper that she had been using the organization to create offshore accounts, through which she amassed a fortune of more than US$4.5 million that did not appear in any known register.  Hiriart had been in charge of the organization for 42 years.

The widow’s fall

At age 90,  Hiriart was no longer living the high life. By then, according to El Clarín, years into the restored democracy, the grasping hand of the dictatorship had sunk, and with it Hiriart’s validation. Her adoring supporters had left her and only a few relatives would visit her. She was, in a way, the last living piece of an old, tattered picture from one of the most violent and bitter times in Chilean history.

Hiriart was diagnosed with dementia and depression in 2017, as well as several digestive conditions that forced her to visit the hospital frequently. Thereafter, she was hospitalized often but persevered despite her advanced age and infirmities.

In the El Clarín piece, Matus alluded to this tenacity, observing that Pinochet could not have maintained power for 17 years if it were not for Hiriart and adding, “Lucía was the one who pushed him to betray, she is the one who [helped] perpetuate his power and the repression he validated.”

Related posts

Investigative commission seeks a “total transformation” of the police

Javiera León Badaracco

Update: Curfew Lifted in All Regions in Chile

Camila Rayen Huecho Pozo

Police Reform: How to Reshape a Criticized Institution?

Camila Rayen Huecho Pozo

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

Privacy & Cookies Policy