Magazine Feature / People

Historical narrative tells of alumnus’ life under Chilean dictator

While the 11th day of September became significant to Americans in 2001, the day had long held significance for Heraldo Muñoz (MA ’76, PhD ’78), Chile’s ambassador to the United Nations.

On that day in 1973, a military coup overthrew the government of Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected socialist president. More than a year later, Augusto Pinochet took the title of Chile’s president.

As a socialist and official in the Allende government, the coup forever changed Muñoz’s life.

In The Dictator’s Shadow: Life Under Augusto Pinochet (Basic Books, 2009), named one of the best books of 2008 by the Washington Post, Muñoz provides a historical account of his experiences under the dictator, beginning with the bloody overthrow of Allende in 1973 and ending with Pinochet’s death on Dec. 10, 2006.

During Pinochet’s oppressive tenure as president, which lasted from December 1974 to December 1989, his government killed at least 3,197 people and tortured another 29,000, according to a report by the Chilean government.

Muñoz had no desire to revisit this painful past and declined initial requests from his publisher to write the memoir.

“But, in the end,” Muñoz says, “I became convinced that this was a story that a generation worldwide could identify with and that deserved to be known by today’s public to draw lessons for the future.”

In addition to Muñoz’s recollections, The Dictator’s Shadow contains substantial amounts of new historical material taken from previously unpublished documents and interviews Muñoz conducted with democratic activists and Pinochet collaborators.

The United States plays an important part in the story, according to Muñoz, who notes that then President Richard Nixon embraced Pinochet. Nixon reportedly feared that with Cuba on one side and Chile on the other, Latin America would become a “red sandwich.”

During his lifetime Pinochet never took responsibility for the human rights violations perpetrated by his regime, and his poor health prevented him from ever standing trial.

While Muñoz resents that the man he describes as “cruel and lacking in honor” was never punished for his crimes, “Perhaps the experience of the dictatorship strengthened [Chile’s] adherence to international law,” he says, “and to key principles like tolerance and the pursuit of peace.”

Muñoz is the author of more than 20 books, including A Solitary War: A Diplomat’s Chronicle of the Iraq War and Its Lessons (Fulcrum Publishing, 2008).

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