Air force general Fernando Matthei has left a mark. He shaped the Falklands War to protect Chile’s national security, he saved and defended the dictatorship – and then brought it down. He passed away at age 92 last year, and, given his influence, he deserves a belated obituary.
Born in 1925 in Osorno, Matthei joined the air force 20 years later. He became military attaché in London, where he worked during the 1973 coup and gained the accolades that would thrust him into a key position during the Falklands War.
In December 1973, Matthei returned to Chile to lead the air force war academy (AGA). A torture site for anti-dictatorship military personnel, AGA should raise questions about the level of internal support the military had for the coup, and what it did to itself by creating places like AGA.
Matthei failed to trigger such a debate, as he led the academy while Alberto Bachelet, prominent dictatorship opponent and father of eventual two-time president Michelle, was tortured there. General Bachelet died in 1974 – during Matthei’s tenure – from the wounds his comrades inflicted. In his defense, Matthei claimed incompetence years later, just like most morally failed leaders do.
From health minister to defense minister
Back then, Matthei’s style paid off. In 1976, he entered government as health minister. Some two years later he reached the echelons of power, becoming defense minister while succeeding vicious anti-communist and first-hour conspirator Gustavo Leigh.
Taking the post, Matthei saved Pinochet for the first time. Originally, the junta planned to rotate leadership, but Pinochet – underestimated by his fellow coup plotters and their US backers – put himself at the top, arguing that the army trumps all other branches.
While the overruled junta members remained naive about politics, Pinochet understood that first-mover advantage would enable him to entrench his power. Once Leigh realized that something was up, he contradicted Pinochet’s rule – tellingly, in foreign media – and was promptly relieved of his post.
Influental junta member
But the air force stood by Leigh and eight potential successors refused to fill his post – until Matthei came up. Accepting while his colleagues refused, he saved Pinochet a veritable embarrassment and potential loss of power. Matthei not only understood the potential consequences of his comrades’ behavior but also grabbed the chance to become a member of the junta. If that caused any hard feelings among his comrades, they have long subsided.
In 1982, Matthei’s influence skyrocketed. He was the only one in the military state – headed by a professor of geopolitics and general, no less – who understood the threat Argentine dictator-general Leopoldo Galtieri issued in his speech to the hypnotized masses on Plaza de Mayo after the Falkland Islands invasion. Drunk with megalomania, Galtieri promised the South Atlantic today and the South Pacific – Chile’s Cape Horn – tomorrow.
Pursuing the Pacific War strategy, when Argentina gained land without losing a soldier, didn’t work this time, however. Margaret Thatcher feared backing down could embolden the Soviets, would turn the Tory press – where the Falklands company had a strong foothold – against her, and would deprive her of the opportunity to deflect attention from the pain her neoliberal social engineering (inspired by the Chilean experience) inflicted on society.
Point man to Margaret Thatcher
Matthei became the British point man, due to his work as military attaché. He explained the matter to Pinochet, and both agreed that the dictator should not take responsibility, but should instead allow Matthei to handle things autonomously. Matthei took the risk. If everything worked well (as it did), Pinochet would reap the benefits (as he did), but if things hadn’t worked out, Matthei would have played the scapegoat.
The contemporary historical record has Matthei mainly facilitating intelligence gathering on troop and aircraft movements and forwarding this information to British warships. The British then could anticipate and thwart attacks by Argentina’s Super Étendard jets that were operated by highly skilled pilots and carried devastating Exocet missiles.
Years later, Britain’s war envoy to Chile Sidney Edwards said this support was key to British victory. Matthei compellingly justified the alliance by arguing that Chile could not play nice while staring down an Argentine barrel, even though he strongly advocated close bilateral relations with a reasonable Argentina.
After the 1988 NO plebiscite, Matthei’s influence peaked. When the NO victory became clear, Pinochet wanted to summon the communist boogeyman. Mulling executing another Plan Z, he wanted to incite violence in Santiago, blame non-existent revolutionaries, and claim extended powers to “maintain order.”
CIA documents show the junta had to give Pinochet these powers, but Matthei gambled again and refused. Matthei never received due credit, perhaps to his liking, because he kept seeing himself as a devout soldier who worked to save Chile. He also, implausibly, maintained that Pinochet never intended to sabotage the plebiscite.
But Matthei, not the head of state, announced the return to democracy. This way, Matthei contained Pinochet while claiming his reward, putting himself at the forefront of Chile’s history and leaving his imprint permanently. So it wasn’t “the people” who won back democracy, nor did a “benign dictator” just abdicate.
Matthei’s unique role in ending the dictatorship and the related horrors he at least enabled make him one of Chile’s most contradictory figures.
Fernando Jorge Matthei Aubel died November 19, 2017, in Santiago de Chile.
Christian is Managing Editor at Chile Today, where he curates the foreign policy blog Teatinos One/Eighty. Christian is also Lead Editor of E-International Relations, co-editor of an open access textbook on International Relations Theory and Director at the Chilean Association of International Specialists (ACHEI).