John Birch Society speaker Leah Southwell wants folks to know that Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet wasn’t such a bad guy. Political Science professors and historians disagree.

Pinochet took power in a coup and ruled the country for 17 years before stepping aside (though remaining in command of the army). He retired as “Senator-for-Life,” which gave him immunity from prosecution until his death in 2006 while under house arrest after having been charged with dozens of counts of kidnapping, torture, and murder.

Southwell, who lived in Chile for seven years before moving to Colorado,. tours the country giving speeches to conservative groups in which she argues that the dictator is misunderstood and his actions, though violent, in fact, saved the South American nation from communism.

“We need to understand that history is always revised and forgotten of what really happened,” Southwell said on a recent radio interview. “Pinochet took [Chile] back from the communists. It was a somewhat bloody battle- there were 3,000 people killed which I think in a revolutionary battle like that -for the power- 3,000 is relatively small. Of course tragic for any and all.”

Over the past several months, Southwell has made similar statements downplaying the dictator’s documented murder and torture of thousands of people to numerous conservative groups across Colorado. Speaking on behalf of venerable far-right conspiracist group the John Birch Society, Southwell has presented to Protect Elbert County, and the Colorado Springs Republican Women.

Earlier this month she also spoke to Keep Colorado Free & Open, a Larimer County “Liberty” group that opposes public health restrictions and whose members in April expressed desires to revolt against the government “outside the law,” because they couldn’t wait until the next election to change leadership.

Reached for comment, Southwell doubled down on her position, insisting that the benefits of his free market policies outweighed the violence he used to take and hold power.

“Do you look at him for the 3,000 people were killed to eliminate communism or do you look at the free-market policies he implemented that made Chile an economic power?” asked Southwell. “In the end, Pinochet did do great things for Chile.”

University of Colorado Professor Sam Fitch, who specializes in Latin American politics, disagrees with Southwell’s take.

“The John Birch representative’s view of Pinochet as a benign grandfather and ‘democratic’ leader contradicts all the reputable history of that period,” says Fitch, “as well as U.S. and UN and independent human rights groups records for Chile.”

Prior to the coup, the Chilean economy was collapsing under Allende, as Southwell says, and the Central Intelligence Agency was indeed attempting to undermine his support, says former CIA officer Jack Devine, who was stationed in Santiago at the time. However he argues that

“The Pinochet period was a painful time for the Chilean people, as was the Allende period that preceded it,” says Devine. “In the context of the 1970s, the United States was very concerned about Allende, his brand of socialism, and the possibility of communism spreading throughout Latin America. In that environment, it made for good covert action for the CIA to support the opposition political parties and the media in resisting Allende.”

Southwell frames Pinochet’s coup as the only option to save Chile: “What do you do when power becomes evil and is hurting people? When a country is starving do you simply wait for the next election?”  

According to Devine, a peaceful transition of power would indeed have been a much better solution.

“I’m convinced that if the military had not intervened in September 1973 to topple Allende, the CIA covert action programs would have sustained the opposition until the next election and Allende would have been defeated at the ballot box,” says Devine. “This would have been a far preferable outcome which would have preserved Chile’s democratic institutions and saved many lives. 

“While Allende’s failed economic and political policies were the main factor in creating the conditions for the coup, the CIA’s covert action programs contributed to the conditions on the ground for a change in government, Devine continued. “It is important to understand the CIA did not install Pinochet. The military planned and executed the coup without coordination with CIA. Their core reason for acting was to preserve the integrity and discipline of the military institution which was starting to fray significantly. 

“Unfortunately, the military coup against Allende had unforeseen consequences for all, including the many years of brutality and political repression of the Chilean people under the Pinochet regime.”

Jennifer Cyr, Associate Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at Universidad Torcuato di Tella in Buenos Aires, Argentina, offers a another perspective on Allende and Pinochet.

“Allende was a socialist but he was also clearly a democrat (small ‘d’), says Cyr. “He had participated in politics for years before he was elected to the presidency. He was not an outsider; he was committed to democracy.

“Pinochet came to power in a bloody coup. Many died, many were tortured, many were disappeared. Estimates are that around 3,200 died or were disappeared with Pinochet in power. Roughly 30,000 were tortured and 200,000–nearly 2% of the population– were forced into exile. So the impact in terms of human rights violations (death, torture, forced displacement) was very pronounced.”

Former Chilean resident Nealin Parker, now a Lecturer at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs, and Director at the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination, shared a personal story of life under Pinochet.

“As a child, I lived in Chile in 1987 and 1988.  I befriended a construction worker who worked down the street from my house because he helped me cross the multi-lane street on my way to school,” says Parker.  “He became, then, friends with my parents, which is how I learned that he was tortured by Pinochet’s administration – wires attached to his body and electric shocks administered through his testicles.  He had not committed a crime beyond protesting, he was a young man in the political opposition.  He had a daughter that year who was called his Miracle because he did not think he could have children after that.” 

In her conversation with the Colorado Times Recorder, Southwell noted the expulsion of 200,000 Chileans as proof that Pinochet simply wanted to rid the country of political opposition, only killing those he had to.

“Once they found out who the communists were, the military went to their houses and gave them 24 hours to leave the country,” said Southwell. “That was a pretty reasonable thing to do. They weren’t all slaughtered.”

Professor Cyr also commented on Pinochet’s political and policy changes, specifically structural changes that protected him and preserved power for him and his allies.

“Pinochet’s social, political, and economic impact has carried over into the democratic period that followed him,” Says Cyr. “He changed the constitution, setting up a political system that over-represented conservatives, gave immunity to himself and others in the military junta, and set aside budgetary allotments (and other prerogatives) to the military. In essence, he ensured that the military would remain a powerful state and also political institution well after he left office.

“The authoritarian legacy of Pinochet’s time in power is still being reckoned with today. Economically, his draconian structural adjustment measures exacerbated serious social and economic inequality, which only began to be addressed after he left office.” 

Southwell’s employer, the John Birch Society, has advocated far-right conspiracies and fringe positions for decades, famously seeing communists everywhere. In the week following the insurrection, the Washington Post took a long look back at the history of Republican links to right-wing conspiracists in a piece titled, “Long before QAnon, Ronald Reagan and the GOP purged John Birch extremists from the party.”

“The society, founded in 1958, was fiercely anti-communist — and fond of crackpot theories,” wrote the Post. “Its founder, candy manufacturer Robert Welch, had accused most of the U.S. government — including former Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower — of being under secret communist control … Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) was thinking about running for president…But Goldwater had a problem — much like the one that Republican leaders face today, as many of their voters embrace QAnon conspiracy theories and President Trump’s false claims of a stolen election. Goldwater wanted to distance himself from the conspiracy theories, but he feared alienating his base.”

For her part Southwell rejects the QAnon conspiracy as disinformation, though she doesn’t say whom she believes created or carried it out.

“QAnon too, if you followed all that, it was a disinformation campaign,” Southwell said to the Keep CO Free & Open group. “It was to neutralize you. The whole point of QAnon too was to say, ‘don’t worry, it’s under control, these guys are going to take care of it,’ and it neutralized too many good patriots.”

Southwell and other Birchers aren’t alone in their appreciation for the murderous dictator. Pinochet is so admired by the Proud Boys, neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists and hate group members that they put him on t-shirts.

A gathering of Proud Boys and far-right extremists, three of whom are wearing “Pinochet Did Nothing Wrong” shirts

“Pinochet Did Nothing Wrong” reads the front of one t-shirt popular with those groups, including some in Colorado. The back of the shirt reads “Making Communists Afraid of Rotary Aircraft Again,” which is a reference to one of the military regime’s preferred means of murdering political opponents by pushing them out of helicopters

For just $30 you can own this t-shirt.

Southwell said flatly that the John Birch Society has nothing to do with the Proud Boys and said she has never heard of nor seen the aforementioned shirt. Moreover she objected to “being lumped in” with them.

Southwell doesn’t only speak about Chile. During a question and answer session with the Keep Colorado Free & Open group, she defended the Electoral College by saying the following:

“We weren’t supposed to be voting for our senators either. The 17th Amendment was a horrible amendment that changed the whole structure of our country. The states were to be represented, not the people, in three different ways. The people’s house was the House. The Senate was the states’ House. And the president was to be elected by the wisest people in our country, not the people. And I will very boldly say, I do not think that the people are smart enough to vote for who is the best president, and it was never intended to be a popular vote for the president.”

Over half a century after the Birch Society’s founding, the Republican Party is rife with elected officials, party officers, and rank and file members who believe any number of debunked conspiracy theories. Republicans in Congress refuse to allow a Jan. 6 Commission to investigate the planning and coordination behind the unprecedented storming of our nation’s Capitol. Both nationally and here in Colorado, Republicans continue to perpetuate the “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, and claim the COVID pandemic was a hoax or government plot, and that the vaccine is more dangerous than the virus.

The latest? In classic Bircher tradition and with an impressively unified voice, Republicans now insist that modern public school social studies curricula that honestly address racism and prejudice in America are in fact “Marxist” indoctrination.

Southwell too echoed these objections, telling the Keep CO Free & Open group that they “should be hopping mad about what they’re teaching in the schools.”

“They’re being indoctrinated,” said Southwell. “They have been for a long time. The indoctrination that’s happening right now is child abuse that needs to stop.”