General Gustavo Leigh Guzman
A great deal has been written about the coup d’etat in Chile which violently overthrew the democratically elected left-wing government of Salvador Allende in 1973. Much of the literature has focused -at least from this writer’s layman’s perspective- on the figures respectively of Allende and General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, who led the junta. But little to nothing is known about the other military leaders who ruled Chile during an era characterised by violent repression.
Gustavo Leigh, the Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Air Force, was an important member of the junta, and an implacable proponent of dealing harshly with the political left, but it is fascinating to discover the contrast in the approach to politics and economics between him and Pinochet; differences which led to his ouster from the junta in 1978.
Both men owed their appointments as heads of their respective branches of the armed forces to Allende. Leigh was in fact one of the primary instigators of the coup plot, with Pinochet apparently only joining the conspiracy at a late stage and taking precedence in affairs of state by virtue of the fact that he was the head of the most important branch of the military.
Both men were, of course, fervently anti-Marxist and, in their thinking, were patriots who were carrying out the sacred duty of rescuing the faltering fatherland from sinking inexorably into a pit of Marxist misery. On the night of the coup, each member of the junta representing each armed service made a brief statement that was broadcast to the Chilean people. When compared to the statements of Pinochet (Army), Merino (Navy) and Mendoza (Police), Leigh’s words are striking in their venom:
After three years of suffering the Marxist cancer which led us to economic, moral and social disaster and which could no longer be tolerated for the sacred interests of the homeland we found ourselves obliged to take on the sad and painful mission which we have undertaken.
We are not afraid. We know the enormous responsibility that will rest on our shoulders .
But we are convinced, we are quite sure that the vast majority of the Chilean people are with us. They are willing to fight against Marxism! They are willing to stamp it down to the final consequences!
While Leigh claimed in an interview in 1977 that he was unaware of human rights violations which had occurred during the first years of the dictatorship, he was, on the contrary, complicit in the uncompromisingly brutal atmosphere that permeated the rule of the generals. Indeed, on the day of the uprising, he set the tone that was to come by sending in air force jets to bomb and machine gun La Moneda, the fortress-like presidential palace in which Allende was holding out; setting it ablaze.
As a key figure of the state, Leigh was a co-overseer of the day-to-day policies of internal repression which were carried out in the name of the junta, and his later affectation of ignorance did not stand the test of scrutiny. For instance, he had to have known of the atrocities committed by the Joint Command, a part of Chilean military intelligence which coordinated the activities of the branches of the armed forces, because it had been created from the ranks of the Intelligence Service of the Air Force (SIFA). This body was responsible for the arrest, torture and elimination of 15 members of Chile’s Communist Party in 1975 and a further 10 between 1976 and 1977.
Also, his purge of the Air Force of left-wing officers delivered them into the hands of state-appointed torturers and murderers whose handiwork led to the deaths of former servicemen such as Brigadier Alberto Bachelet, the father of the future Chilean president.
Nonetheless, he fundamentally differed from Pinochet in some key areas. This did not relate to having any misgivings as to the extreme nature of the terror, a position which almost certainly cost General Oscar Bonilla his life in a mysterious helicopter crash, but was to do with what he felt should be the correct approach to the economy.
Unlike Pinochet, who readily subscribed to and applied the Libertarian economic policies theorised by a group of academicians associated with the University of Chicago, Leigh believed in strong state intervention in the economy. Whereas the ‘shock treatment’ implemented at the behest of Pinochet was based on a free market devoid of price controls and uninhibited competition from foreign concerns, Leigh supported a mixed economy with a substantive presence of the state in heavy industry, as well as the purposeful regulation of imports and the financial speculation market.
He also voiced his concerns over the absence of a timetable through which the regime would restore democracy; specifically opposing the referendum called by Pinochet to serve as a ratification of his continued tenure as head of state until at least 1986.
He restated his objection during an interview with the Paolo Buagialli, an Italian journalist working for Corriere della Sera, which was published on July 18th 1978. Leigh alluded to what he termed the old tradition of Chilean “freedom and democracy” which could not be indefinitely denied. He also strongly implied that intransigence on the part of the military in this matter could precipitate the masses. Leigh further claimed that he would reconsider his position as a member of the junta if it were confirmed that the Chilean state had been involved in the assassination of Oscar Letelier and other misdeeds including torture.
His words were all the more striking given that indictments were at the time expected to be brought against General Manuel Contreras, the head of the dismantled secret police organisation named Direccion de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), two other army officers and an American, Michael Townley.
Pinochet responded by dismissing Leigh on July 24th 1978 (obtaining the consenting signatures of the other two members of the four-man junta) and removing 18 of the 20 members of the air force general staff. The New York Times reported that Pinochet had “established unopposed control over the governing military junta by demolishing his main critic”.
Leigh died in September 1999 at the age of 79 after surviving and recovering (apart from the loss of an eye) from an assassination attempt carried out by members of the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front who burst into his office and opened fire on him.
It is clear that from the time of his membership of the junta, he had begun working towards establishing a legacy which would distance him from the Pinochet regime. These efforts did not end with the public utterances exposing his different outlook on political and economic issues. It now transpires that Leigh had regularly taped conversations between himself and other members of the junta with a recording device placed in his jacket.
He did not publish the contents of the tapes after the restoration of democracy because he feared being sued. However, a book written by his widow, Gabriela Garcia de Leigh, has reproduced much of their content. Entitled Leigh: El General Republicano, the book is clearly presented with the objective of dissociating Leigh from the excesses of the Pinochet regime. One example relates to Leigh’s thoughts after reading a letter addressed to him from Mariana Callejas, the wife of Michael Townley, the American agent of DINA who carried out the assassinations of General Carlos Prats and Orlando Letelier.
The import here was that Leigh did not initially believe that Pinochet was capable of orchestrating such crimes and that he confronted him about the matter, even though he himself was implicated in the disappearance of leaders of the communist party and was detained under the orders of an investigating judge. He did not face any sanction owing to an amnesty.
El General Republicano, also attempts to place Leigh thinking as one who had considered the military intervention of 1973 to be a corrective measure that would be a brief one before a return to “normalcy”. Hence the reference to the term “republican”, implies that he fundamentally believed in democratic constitutionalism, albeit that he had not felt bound by General Rene Schneider’s doctrine of non-interference by the army and partook in the overthrow of the Chilean constitution. For Leigh, who once called the coup the “gravest defeat suffered by international communism”, the ends justified the means.
The book seems unlikely to change much in terms of the way the Chilean public view their past. The divisions between those who feel that the coup saved Chile from a civil war and laid the basis for its present relative economic prosperity on the one hand, and those who feel that that it inaugurated the darkest epoch in Chilean national history is as clear as ever.
Leigh will remain a hero to some and a villain to others for the foreseeable future.
© Adeyinka Makinde (2019)
Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.