by Simon Romero)
SANTIAGO, Chile — The Augusto Pinochet Ugarte Library, on the manicured grounds of the military academy here, welcomes visitors with an oil portrait of the Chilean dictator himself in military regalia. The painting of General Pinochet, whose government killed or disappeared more than 3,000 people and tortured nearly 40,000 others, hangs above the librarian’s desk.
Far less conspicuously, amid the library’s stacks, are volumes from his personal library, parts of which he donated to the academy before stepping down in 1990 after 17 years in power. Some, like “From Tarapacá to Lima,” the 1914 account by Gonzalo Bulnes of Chile’s humiliation of Peruvian forces in the 19th-century War of the Pacific, are still labeled in homage to their infamous donor.
Chile has consolidated a thriving democracy in the decades since General Pinochet grudgingly handed over power to an elected successor. Still, new disclosures about the dictator, whose iron-fisted rule is still openly admired by some Chileans, continue to haunt and even morbidly fascinate the nation.
Revelations from the Pinochet era, which began with a coup d’état in 1973, include gruesome human rights violations and secret bank accounts abroad. But the discovery that General Pinochet secretly used public funds to accumulate a vast personal library ranking among Latin America’s largest and most valuable book collections is particularly surprising, leaving some here puzzling over the motivation for his obsession.
“Pinochet was tormented by an intense inferiority complex, which he tried to deal with by collecting books,” said Cristóbal Peña, an investigative journalist whose 2013 book, “The Secret Literary Life of Augusto Pinochet,” explores the evolution of the dictator’s library, which included roughly 50,000 books and has been valued conservatively by rare-book experts at about $3 million.
General Pinochet, the son of a customs inspector and an average student in military school, was often overshadowed by brilliant peers like Gen. Carlos Prats, an interior minister and commander in chief of the army during Salvador Allende’s government.
But while General Pinochet was rarely admired for his intellect, he grew to be feared for his Machiavellian instincts. After replacing General Prats as head of Chile’s army in 1973, he led the coup that toppled Mr. Allende, then went about eliminating rivals like General Prats, who was killed together with his wife in a 1974 car bombing in Buenos Aires orchestrated by Chile’s intelligence agency.
While overseeing such operations, General Pinochet steadily collected books, often quietly ordering volumes through a small network of booksellers in the old center of Santiago or requesting diplomatic personnel posted in Chilean missions abroad to find certain works. All the while, he paid for the books with discretionary funds under his control.
The Pinochet library might never have come to light if not for investigations into the dictator’s secret bank accounts at various financial institutions, including some in the United States, which investigators believe to have held more than $20 million. He faced charges of embezzlement and tax evasion, in addition to legal battles over rights abuses, before his death in 2006, at 91.
Poring over General Pinochet’s holdings, investigators discovered the library, which had largely escaped notice because it was haphazardly distributed among several of his homes, a foundation created in his honor and the military academy’s library.
While the Pinochet era is generally regretted here, the general still has his defenders in the conservative ranks.
“I had the privilege of knowing General Augusto Pinochet closely and appreciating his qualities as a righteous man,” said Roberto Mardones, manager of the President Pinochet Foundation, the nonprofit organization that received portions of the Pinochet library. “He always expressed great admiration for the life and work of Napoleon.”
General Pinochet collected many works on the Napoleonic era, including an 1841 edition, in the original French, of “Études Sur Napoléon,” by Marie Élie Guillaume de Baudus, and other titles translated into Spanish.
General Pinochet also acquired rare colonial tomes, like the writings of Alonso de Ovalle, a Jesuit priest and a chronicler of Chilean history in the 17th century, and 18th-century volumes of “La Araucana,” the epic poem by Alonso de Ercilla about the insurrection of the Araucanian Indians in Chile in the 16th century.
Complementing his books connected to Chilean history, which also included the prison diaries of Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna, the 19th-century Chilean writer and politician, General Pinochet amassed works on guerrilla insurgencies and Marxist theoreticians like Antonio Gramsci, the Italian philosopher imprisoned by the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini.
His vast library of tens of thousands of books contained almost no poetry or fiction, an exception being “The Rigor of the Bugle,” a novel about Chilean military life written in the 19th century by Arturo Givovich. As a legacy of General Pinochet’s rule, Chile’s armed forces are among the best funded in Latin America.
At the Pinochet Library at the military academy, cadets study for exams in a modern building that would not be out of place on the campus of a university in the United States. The watercolors on the library’s walls speak to leisurely pursuits: polo matches, fly fishing and fox hunting.
As a young officer, General Pinochet worked as a teachers’ aide at the academy and edited its institutional magazine. He also taught classes on politics and military geography, laying the basis for one of his own books, “Geopolitics,” published in 1968 before he ascended to the rank of general.
While the discovery of General Pinochet’s library has led some here to contend that he was a more complex figure than is often believed, others say that the existence of a book collection is no reason to reassess his intellectual capacities, expressing doubt that he actually read many of the works he came to own.
“Pinochet was intellectually mediocre but very cunning, often hiding his eyes behind dark glasses,” said Heraldo Muñoz, 65, a senior official at the United Nations who was an official in the Allende government before the 1973 coup. His 2008 memoir, “The Dictator’s Shadow,” depicts life in post-Allende Chile and assesses General Pinochet and his legacy.
Mr. Muñoz, who owns a signed copy of General Pinochet’s “Geopolitics” and is no great admirer, said the general was capable of some dumbfounding mistakes. In the first edition, Mr. Muñoz said, “He confused Washington State with Washington, D.C.”
Pascale Bonnefoy contributed reporting.