THE POWER BEHIND THE THRONE
Born into a wealthy aristocratic family in the Northern Chilean city of Antofagasta, her father Osvaldo Hiriart Corvalan was a lawyer and a senator, who had for a short while been Chile’s Interior Minister during the 1940s. Her mother was Lucia Rodriguez Ayuda de Hiriart, of Basque French origin.
She had three siblings, Osvaldo, Sergio and Tatiana.
Aged 20, Lucia got engaged to Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, a lieutenant in the Chilean Army Infantry school. Her family were against the marriage, considering him beneath her class.
They were married in 1943 and had 5 children, 3 girls and 2 boys. It was not a particularly happy marriage in the early years. Lucia suffered depression and considered her husband’s army wage insufficient for her needs. She criticised him both in public and in private. Visitors to their house said it was disgustingly filthy with no cleaning or washing done. He said he was too busy with the army to do ‘women’s work’ and she said it was a servant’s job to clean up – even though they couldn’t afford a servant.
Lucia had little time for her father, who made it clear Tatiana was his favourite daughter. Her brothers became well-known in their respective fields, Osvaldo as an agronomist, Sergio as a lawyer.
Her mother, Lucia Rodriguez, moved in the highest social circles and liked to emphasize that she had been close friends with various Chilean presidents, always claiming her social position was, “Much superior to others.” Mother and daughter were always in competition with each other.
In the mid-1950s, Pinochet was sent on a military mission to Quito in Ecuador. Lucia learned that whilst there, he had an affair with Ecuadorian pianist Piedad Noe.
Back at home, Lucia constantly nagged him to get promotion and mix with the ‘right’ people. In 1971, Pinochet was promoted to be the General Commander of the Santiago Garrison.
The previous year, the people of Chile had democratically elected a socialist government led by Salvadore Allende. The right-wing military were unhappy with this and plotted a coup. Pinochet was not directly involved in the planning – to his wife’s disgust.
In late August 1973, Pinochet became Commander-In–Chief of the Chilean Army, just as plans were put in place to launch the military coup. Pinochet remained uncertain. He said of Lucia, “One night my wife took me into the bedroom where my grandchildren were sleeping, and said, ‘They will become slaves because you are unable to make a decision.” He joined the coup.
It took place on the 11th September 1973. It was fully backed and supported by the Nixon administration in the USA. President Allende and many of his supporters were murdered. Pinochet took over as President.
The coup has become known as ‘The Other 9/11’.
Pinochet moved his family into La Moneda, the Presidential Palace – once he had had it rebuilt after it’s semi-destruction in the coup.
Lucia immediately had the palace lavishly refurbished. She had a staff of 100 women serving her, including hairdressers, make-up artists and photographers. She had a wardrobe full of literally thousands of dresses and wore several in the course of each day.
She filled the palace with baroque-style furniture, and portraits of herself and her husband. Everything in the palace was coloured gold.
Her primary role was to support her husband as well as various charities. She took over a non-governmental organisation, CEMA – the Centre of Chilean Mothers. It was created in the 1950s and was a vaguely feminist organisation designed to give to support to young mothers in the country.
Lucia changed the focus immediately, turning it into a conservative Catholic organisation. She said, “A woman’s place is in the home and mothers have responsibility to provide a firm hand over their children who should grow up within the order established by the military regime.”
The reality was that Lucia was the power behind the throne. She approved all of Pinochet’s ministerial appointments. She even made her husband give her lawyer brother, Sergio, a leading role in his administration – although Sergio proved so incompetent that Pinochet sacked him within a year.
She made Pinochet pass a law that stated at all times he had to be addressed as ‘His Excellency’ and she as ‘First Lady’.
Lucia had very close links to the Chilean secret service. She was very friendly with Manuel Contreras, the head of DINA (‘Direccion de Inteligensa Nacional’ –i.e., the secret police). They were responsible for all political arrests, tortures and murders. Lucia passed information and gossip to him and in return he kept her abreast of all security issues. It was said she knew more than her husband.
The families of ‘the disappeared’ often wrote to her asking for support in finding their loved ones. She passed each and every letter onto DINA.
She kept detailed files on each of Pinochet’s compatriots in the military and government, which she used for blackmail purposes, ensuring loyalty.
The only person whose behaviour she ignored was Manuel Contreras himself. When he left his wife for his secretary, she just shrugged her shoulders.
In 1974, she was interviewed on Chilean TV by journalist Malu Sierra. Sierra asked Lucia questions about how she felt about murder and torture. Shortly after the interview, Sierra was herself kidnapped and tortured by DINA.
In 1976, DINA assassinated Orlando Letelier, Allende’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, in Washington DC. Pinochet was furious and immediately sacked Contreras.
Lucia promptly left her husband and stayed away for months – but came back when she realised she missed the lifestyle of being First Lady.
Her temper was notorious. The couple once stayed at a top-class hotel. She threw a tantrum at the flowers displayed in her room and screamed “Get this shit out of here.” She tore the flowers to shreds and stamped on them. The hotel maids were terrified.
On another occasion, a leading army general was supposed to pick her up for a visit. He was two minutes late. When he arrived, she was standing on the steps waiting. She hurled abuse at him and hit the side of the car. The general was too scared to get out.
Pinochet himself, insisted on being served a cheese salad each day. The cheese always had to be cut in the shape of a heart or a 4-leaf clover.
Pinochet complained that the USA under Jimmy Carter, was trying to bring him down – “The country is exerting against the Chilean regime.” He was delighted when Ronald Reagan became US President and hundreds of CIA operatives were sent into Chile to support Pinochet’s dictatorship.
In 1982, Lucia’s father died. She was late for his funeral, consequently making a dramatic entrance. She also insisted her husband be at the door greeting people, dressed in his full military regalia.
Immediately after the funeral, she flew off to Washington DC to visit her close friend Nancy Reagan, leaving her husband behind.
In 1990, General Pinochet was removed from power and democracy was returned to Chile. The family moved into a house in La Dehesa, an affluent part of Santiago.
In 1998, Pinochet went to the United Kingdom to visit his friend Margaret Thatcher. He was promptly arrested for ‘crimes against humanity’ and placed under house arrest (in a posh gentleman’s club). Spain demanded his extradition to them. A fierce and lengthy legal battle ensued before Home Secretary Jack Straw allowed Pinochet to return to Chile in 2000.
Nevertheless, Chile began legal proceedings against Pinochet. During his time in power 3,000 people were killed or ‘disappeared’ and it is estimated 10,000 people were tortured.
In 2005, Lucia was investigated and sued by Chilean authorities for tax evasion, along with one of her sons, Marco Antonio. It was claimed she owed the authorities $2.35 million.
But Pinochet died in 2006. All charges against him (in death) and his family were instantly dropped.
But in 2007, Lucia was arrested again, along with all 5 of her children and 17 of Pinochet’s closet allies (including his lawyers, generals and his secretary). They were charged with having false passports and embezzlement. They had taken $27 million out of Chile and transferred it into foreign bank accounts. Lucia herself was found to have 125 separate bank accounts in Riggs Bank in Washington DC. Again, all charges were mysteriously dropped.
A ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ Committee revealed many horrors of the regime to the country – and Lucia’s role in all of this was made very clear.
By now she was a figure of hatred in Chile. She became a recluse, only coming out for church services.
In 2012, she was surrounded by an angry mob as she left her church and had to be rescued by the police.
Lucia was still being funded by the Army. They announced they were going to stop paying for her retinue of 60 people and it was to be reduced to just 3. She was furious.
In 2016, she was arrested again, accused of stealing funds from CEMA. There was evidence she had sent $50,000 to London twice (in 1998 and 1999) for Pinochet’s ‘living expenses’. She had also used CEMA’s public money to pay for 30 separate properties. It was estimated she had stolen $18 million from the organisation.
She was sued by two communist lawyers for misappropriation of public funds, tax evasion and embezzlement.
This time, a court found against Lucia and she was required to hand over to the state all 108 properties she owned – except the house she lived in. She escaped a prison sentence though.
Alejandra Matus wrote an unauthorised biography of Lucia. She tried to get it banned in the courts but failed. It became a Chilean bestseller.
In 2018, she had a fall at her Santiago home and fractured an arm and broke some ribs.
Eventually she suffered respiratory problems and was taken to a military hospital, where she later died of a heart attack.
There were massive celebrations in the centre of Santiago when her death was announced.
Historian Juan Gasparini, who wrote a book on dictator’s wives, called her, “narcissistic, fickle and uncultured”. He said the human rights violations had undoubtedly been made worse by her. But he also pointed out she had never shown any remorse at all.
At her death, her granddaughter Karina said, “She gave her life to the service of Chileans and history will know how to evaluate her great life’s work for our beloved nation.”
Others do not agree. Gabriel Boric, who was elected the left-wing president of Chile just a couple of days after her death said, “Lucia Hiriart caused our country deep pain and division.”
RIP – Remorse Isn’t Present