The dictator’s widow


Book Review

Doña Lucía : La biografía no autorizada

by Alejandra Matus

In 1974, a year after Chile’s bloody military coup, a journalist interviews General Augusto Pinochet and his wife Lucía Hiriart for the Chilean women’s magazine Paula. She asks the most non-probing, inoffensive questions imaginable, such as “what do you think is the secret to happiness?”  and “what do you think is most important for a woman to feel fulfilled?” A short time after the interview the journalist is visited at the magazine’s offices by members of Lucía’s women’s volunteer organization, who invite her to join their group.  She declines politely, but upon leaving the building is accosted by some of these same women, accompanied by security agents, who force her into a car and take her to one of the regime’s secret detention and torture centers.  She is held for 24 hours and interrogated about the interview.

This is one of many extraordinary incidents documented in Alejandra Matus’ well-written and extensively researched biography of Lucía Hiriart de Pinochet, which was published in November and is already in its third printing. Matus is an award-winning Chilean journalist whose first book, El Libro Negro de la Justicia Chilena (The Black Book of Chilean Justice), was a scathing expose of the country’s judiciary published in 1999.  The Chilean judiciary reacted by ordering  the seizure of all copies of the book, using a state security law left over from the Pinochet regime.

A link to a Los Angeles Times story on the case:

This unauthorized biography of Chile’s former first lady has caused somewhat less of an uproar. According to Matus, Pinochetismo  has  dwindled in Chile, though she has had some e mails and Twitter messages “accusing me of being a ‘communist rat’ and things like that, but nothing beyond verbal aggression.”  Was it difficult to get former associates of the Pinochet family to talk?

“Some people very close to the family agreed to give interviews on or off the record, and some people very distant, including adversaries, refused to do so out of fear,” she said. “I believe that the fear of speaking freely about the Pinochet family persists, but it has been chipping away.”

And what a fear factor it was. The dictator’s wife constructed her own extensive power base, building volunteer organizations largely made up of other army wives, who felt coerced into taking part. She also kept in close contact with then-Colonel Manuel Contreras, head of the regime’s feared secret police agency, the DINA.  Contreras ingratiated himself by offering her intelligence on the lives of other military families and at one point even obliged her request to tap the phone of the navy commander’s wife, whose contacts among wealthy Chileans seemed more extensive than hers.  He also fed her tales of real and imagined threats against the Pinochet family.

Contreras had daily meetings with Pinochet, whose professed traditional values did not result in him being an ideal husband.  There was an extended liaison with a pianist during his posting to Ecuador in the 1950s, and later as dictator he attracted the attention of that bizarre creature, the rightwing groupie.  Former associates told Matus of Pinochet’s assignations during his travels around the country, which gave Contreras a certain leverage over him.

Here’s hoping this fine book will be translated into English before much longer, and in the meantime, here’s a link to the Kindle edition in Spanish on Amazon:

And a link to Alejandra Matus’ web site:


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