- On May 23, the remains of deposed Chilean President Salvador Allende were exhumed for further examination. Thirty-seven years after his demise, forensic investigators will complete a second autopsy on the former Chilean President to determine his cause of death. Although the military junta proclaimed Allende’s death a suicide at the time, many Chilean politicians and conspiracy theorists still contend that he was killed in a gun battle with security forces. While the investigation is likely to conjure up divisive images from an explosive past, it also reflects a certain degree of maturity and consensus in Chile’s contemporary democracy.
The September 11, 1973 coup that deposed Allende was an operation that began years before he was elected. Declassified CIA documents and other sources reveal that as early as 1962, the U.S. began actively funding moderate to conservative candidates who could be counted on to oppose socialist political movements and institutions. Despite this meddling, Allende, the champion of the Popular Unity coalition and its socialist cause, clinched a narrow victory in the 1970 elections, defeating Jorge Alessandri Rodríguez, the incumbent from the conservative National Party.
But in the heat of the Cold War, the U.S. government was wary of any socialist tendencies within the Western Hemisphere. The Truman Doctrine of 1947, the basis of U.S. foreign policy towards the Soviet Block during the Cold War, called for the containment of all communist penetration throughout the world. In accordance with this course of action, the CIA actively engaged in “spoiling operations,” in an unsuccessful attempt to discredit Allende’s legitimate victory and prevent his subsequent congressional confirmation. Even The New York Times went so far as to threaten the president-elect, stating that a coup would be necessary if Allende carried out parts of his reform agenda.
Over the next three years, Allende pioneered an extensive program to lift Chile’s lower middle class mestizo majority out of abject poverty. Wages were raised, prices frozen, and in certain circumstances, foreign enterprises were nationalized. A number of U.S. mining giants, including Anaconda, Kennecott and Cerro Corp., which extracted USD 80 million annually from Chilean soil, were placed under state control.
U.S. President Nixon was livid as sweat accumulated on his upper lip. If Nixon perceived the Vietnam War to be an ever growing swarm of communist locusts, then Allende was a stubborn fly that had to be thwacked. For the next few years, he and his infamous Secretary of State Henry Kissinger worked tirelessly to make the Chilean economy “scream.” With the intention of paralyzing the nation, the U.S. engineered a ruthless embargo on Chilean goods while the National Party organized extensive strikes. As a result of these tactics, inflation ran at 320% and the fiscal deficit reached a level of 115% of state receipts. The U.S. government funneled millions of dollars into the National Party while the CIA collaborated with three groups of unspecified coup plotters. Chile was about to explode.
On September 11, 1973 the political storm struck with unrelenting precision at La Moneda, the Chilean presidential palace, sending reverberations more deadly than a terremoto. After insisting that it would uphold the constitution, the duplicitous armed forces, led by General Augusto Pinochet and backed by the CIA, stormed the palace in a bloody coup. Warplanes dropped bombs from the sky as tanks and infantry encircled the building. Those loyal to the democratic government quickly became targets of the Chilean military. From his presidential office, Allende sent out a few final fragmented radio broadcasts as he fiddled with an AK-47, a gift from his friend Fidel Castro.
“Placed at a historical crossroads, I will pay with my life for the loyalty of the people,” he announced stoically over the airwaves.
What happened next is still shrouded in mystery. Dr. Patricio Guijón, the last person to see Allende, tells the story of how the president suddenly fell onto a couch, his head dotted with two bullet holes. However, Dr. Guijón never mentioned hearing any gunshots. An autopsy conducted by the military five hours later concluded that Allende had committed suicide. But in 2008, forensics expert Dr. Luis Ravanal reviewed the autopsy and argued that the two shots may have come from different weapons.
Allende’s family has always expressed pride that he took his own life. “It was an extremely courageous act for someone who loved life as he did,” said his daughter Isabel Allende, a Chilean senator not to be confused with her cousin, a famous author of the same name. Yet Fidel Castro vehemently claims that his friend died in a gun battle with the armed forces. Questions and debate remain.
Polemics aside, politicians from across the political spectrum have come together to shed light on this mystery. A judicial probe into his death launched by the Allende family is backed by both the conservative Coalition for Change (CC) and the center-left Coalition of Parties for Democracy (Concertación). In light of the recent consensus, Chilean political scientist, Mauricio Morales was quoted in a May 18th phone interview by Bloomberg. “These investigations don’t polarize Chile’s political elite like they would have in the early nineties,” expressing instead that this act of cooperation, “exemplifies the consolidation of Chile’s democracy.” While interpretations vary drastically in regard to Pinochet’s oppressive seventeen year dictatorship, the recent political consensus shows a certain level of respect for the democratically elected leader who had been wrongfully deposed. It is telling of how far Chilean democracy has come since that fateful day thirty-seven years ago.
Written by COHA Research Associate Trevor Cohen