Machiavelli and Augusto Pinochet

Published 09 Dec 2016

With The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli created a primer on politics and power. His writings on what were acceptable, and deplorable, characteristics and actions by rulers have appeared on the bookshelves of many world leaders, and are often considered the foundation of modern political science. It is not commonly known whether Augusto Pinochet Ugarte ever read The Prince, but he did employ many of the theories it contains. While Machiavelli may have approved of many tactics used by Augusto Pinochet, as well as the philosophy by which Pinochet ruled, Machiavelli would not have given seal of approval to the overall leadership of Pinochet.

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Augusto Pinochet began his dictatorship of Chile in a very Machiavellian fashion. In The Prince, Machiavelli discusses the ascension of leaders like Moses, Cyrus, and Romulus, saying, “…without that opportunity their powers would have been wasted, and without their powers the opportunity would have been in vain” (49). He goes on to discuss great rulers who came into power because the people were not content with their current leadership. According to Machiavelli, those leaders gained power because the opportunity was present, but they were required to seize that opportunity, using force if necessary.

In the case of Pinochet, the people of Chile were unhappy with President Salvadore Allende. Allende constantly disagreed with the Chilean Congress, who was controlled by the Christian Democratic Party. Because Allende was Marxist, the Christian Democrats accused him of trying to turn Chile into a communist dictatorship (CBC News). Many politicians of that party, along with their loyal followers, called for a military coup. In September 1973, only three months after obtaining the rank of commander-in-chief of the Chilean military, Pinochet seized the opportunity that the people presented (CBC News; BBC News; Microsoft Encarta).

Having successfully overthrown Allende, Pinochet became leader of the military council that would govern Chile until a president could be sworn in (CBC News). During the first year Pinochet held this position, he closed the Chilean Parliament, declared himself president, and banned all activity by political parties and trade unions (BBC News). In 1981, he was officially sworn in as President of Chile under the terms of the new Chilean constitution, which had been written by his military council in 1980 (CBC News). In this, too, Pinochet was following Machiavelli’s teachings by placing himself as the sole point of authority, with others being obeyed simply because they represented Pinochet (Machiavelli 43).

The eight years between the coup and Pinochet’s oath of office were violent, controlling, and everything The Prince seems to recommend. Machiavelli said that it was easy to get people to believe anything, but difficult to keep them believing. He went on to say, “And so it is necessary to order things so that when they no longer believe, they can be made to believe by force” (50). For Pinochet, forced belief took the form of arresting more than 130,000 people who opposed his policies, of which more than 3,000 were executed (CBC News; BBC News; “Pinochet Ugarte, Augusto”; “Augusto Pinochet Ugarte”).

Of course, not all of Pinochet’s power was a result of violence, nor did all of the people fear him. Businesses and farms that had been nationalized in Allende’s attempts at establishing a Marxist government were returned to private owners, and Chile’s economy began to flourish (“Pinochet Ugarte, Augusto”). Many Chileans viewed Pinochet as a hero, a man who revived their economy and stabilized their country (“Pinochet profile”). Even with the allegations and legal problems since the end of his presidency, Pinochet has supporters throughout Chile who consider him a patriot, not a dictator (“Pinochet profile”). Such support is exactly what Machiavelli predicted for any leader who made an effort to win the favor of the people, because the people who receive good things “feel under greater obligation to their benefactor” (65).

While Pinochet followed many of the principles outlined in The Prince, he directly violated other principles that Machiavelli felt were essential to ruling well and remaining in power. Machiavelli cautions against becoming a ruler who will do everything possible in order to acquire money and things, because it causes hatred and anger on the part of the people (86). Pinochet, however, opened several foreign bank accounts during his time in power, depositing millions of dollars under false names (BBC News). In addition, the years after he lost power have seen him indicted on charges of fraud, violations of multiple tax laws, and forgery (BBC News). These are all actions of a man who became consumed by monetary gain.

Pinochet also ignored Machiavelli’s warnings regarding the laws and previous rulers when he assumed power. Machiavelli stated that one who wants to remain in power must be certain of two things: “the one, that the blood of their old rulers be extinct; the other, to make no alteration either in their laws or in their taxes” (36). While Allende died during the coup, Allende’s daughter, Isabelle, remains an outspoken opponent of Pinochet’s government and policies, especially after becoming a Congresswoman in Chile (Meek). Additionally, Pinochet began his rule by changing the way the Chilean government worked, as well as rewriting the constitution to give himself more power (CBC News).

Machiavelli was clear and precise when discussing the feelings a leader must seek to engender in the people. Machiavelli felt that being “despicable or hated” were the two most important things against which a ruler should guard (88). A good leader strives to be both feared and loved so the people will obey without hesitation (Machiavelli 89), but fear is the best option if only one of those emotions is available (Machiavelli 90). Machiavelli cautions, though, to be sure the fear is without hatred and anger in order to avoid rebellion (90). Finally, a good leader must always appear to be full of “mercy, faith, integrity, humanity and religion” (Machiavelli 94).

Augusto Pinochet acted in direct opposition to Machiavelli in the feelings he created among Chileans. During his regime, thousands of Chileans fled the country in order to escape punishment for opposing Pinochet’s policies, and thousands were executed (CBC News). More importantly, over 130,000 Chileans were imprisoned, where they were tortured to the point that the United Nations Human Rights Commission issued an official condemnation of the torture (“Augusto Pinochet Ugarte”). Machiavelli noted that cruelty can lead to being respected, but warned that cruelty is effective only if there are other virtues present (91). Cruelty alone gives rise to fear, but it also causes hatred and anger, against which Machiavelli warned. Pinochet also failed to display the five necessary characteristics, particularly humanity and mercy.

Machiavelli said a leader’s best defense against conspiracies “is that of not being hated by the mass of the people” (96). A good leader does not make the people desperate because he does not want them to act out of desperation. Machiavelli furthered this by saying: “I conclude, therefore, that a prince need trouble little about conspiracies when the people are well disposed, but when they are hostile and hold him in hatred, then he must fear everything and everybody” (97).

Pinochet would have done well to heed the advice of Machiavelli in regard to keeping the people well disposed. In addition to constant protests against Pinochet, there was a failed assassination attempt in 1986 (BBC News; CBC News). In 1988, the people received the first opportunity to vote on Pinochet, and voted not to continue his leadership. This allowed for open elections in 1989, which Pinochet lost, as well (CBC News; BBC News). Because Pinochet was disliked, if not hated, by the majority of the people, he was forced to step down from the position of leadership that he had worked so hard to obtain.

While many of the tactics employed by Augusto Pinochet were in line with the principles espoused by Niccolò Machiavelli, he failed to adhere to some of the more important guidelines established in The Prince. Machiavelli probably would have approved of Pinochet’s ability to seize the opportunity presented, as well as his ability to make himself the solitary authority. Machiavelli would also have approved of the use of force in bringing the people into line under their new leader. On the other hand, Machiavelli would have strongly disapproved of Pinochet’s overall philosophy, and reign in general, because Pinochet forgot the people, allowing them to become filled with anger and hatred. By forsaking the people, Pinochet failed to be the prince that Machiavelli’s guidance would have created.

Works Cited

  • “Augusto Pinochet: Timeline.” CBC News Online. 2006. 20 Oct. 2006
  • “Augusto Pinochet Ugarte.” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia. 2006. 20 Oct. 2006
  • Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Trans. Luigi Ricci. New York: New American Library, 1952.
  • Meek, George. “Pinochet/Allende.” Voice of America. 1998. 21 Oct. 2006 <>
  • “Pinochet Ugarte, Augusto.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. 2005. 20 Oct. 2006
  • “Pinochet profile: Saviour or Tyrant.” BBC News 8 Dec. 2000. 20 Oct. 2006
  • “Profile: Augusto Pinochet.” BBC News. 2006. 20 Oct. 2006
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