Tanya Harmer: Skeletons of Chile’s Past

We welcome a guest post today from Tanya Harmer, author of the forthcoming book Allende’s Chile and the Inter-American Cold War. In the book Harmer explores the period of Allende’s presidency as part of a dynamic inter-American Cold War struggle between Cuba, Chile, the United States, and Brazil to determine Latin America’s future. In this post, she addresses the recent news that Allende’s body has been exhumed under new doubts about whether he committed suicide during the military coup against him in 1973.–ellen

Nearly 40 years after his death, Salvador Allende is grabbing headlines around the world again. As an international team of forensic experts pour over his remains to determine how he died, news agencies are filling airwaves and column inches talking about him. Allende’s picture, his ideals, and the tragedy of Chile’s short-lived revolutionary process are being beamed across the internet with increased frequency. And the right-wing military leaders who overthrew his left-wing coalition government and established a 17-year repressive dictatorship in its wake, are in the dock for his murder. The skeletons of Chile’s past, it seems, are quite literally refusing to die.

What is so fitting about this story is this is exactly what Salvador Allende wanted. He did not go to Chile’s presidential palace, La Moneda, by accident on 11 September 1973. He did not die there by mistake. He wanted his death to be remembered, he believed in the symbolism of death, and he hoped the world would be watching and remembering him long into the future. “Surely this will be the last opportunity for me to address you,” he proclaimed in a farewell radio address from the presidential palace that morning, “I will pay for the loyalty of the people with my life. . . . Radio Magallanes will be silenced, and the calm metal instrument of my voice will no longer reach you. It does not matter. You will continue hearing it. I will always be next to you. At least my memory will be that of a man of dignity who was loyal to his country.”

His decision to go to La Moneda and die there in the event of a coup came as no surprise to his closest collaborators and friends. Nearly two years earlier, Allende had promised thousands of supporters gathered at Chile’s national stadium that he would only leave La Moneda before the end of his mandate riddled with bullets. His private doctors, closest confidants, and his daughters knew exactly where to find him when they got a call alerting them to the coup. Despite their pleas to stop Allende sacrificing himself in the event of a coup, Cuban personnel stationed in Chile were also preparing to fight alongside him early on the morning of 11 September when he called from La Moneda and asked them not to.

Make no mistake, Allende wanted his left-wing democratic government to succeed, and had spent his whole life fighting for a socialist revolution in his country. He also enjoyed exceptionally close relations with revolutionary Cuba. However, Allende was not prepared to countenance the possibility of a civil war, far less an international Cold War battle between Cuban revolutionary forces and Chilean armed forces at presidential palace.

So does it ultimately matter whether, in the final moment of his life, Allende was killed or whether he pulled the trigger, and which gun it was that killed him? Up to a point, yes. If he was murdered, then his killers should be brought to justice. If it is proven that he killed himself, then his skeleton and conspiracies about his death can finally be put to rest. If it turns out he was shot himself once with a pistol instead of the AK-47 that Fidel Castro gave him, then those who have argued that the coup’s leaders manipulated the autopsy to link him to Cuba for eternity will be proved right. But if experts find two bullet wounds there will still be questions about the precise moments before he died and whose bullet finally killed him.

More importantly, even if forensic experts manage to provide a definitive verdict on Allende’s death after months of examining his remains, I am unsure we will learn anything substantially new about him, the coup, or the coup leaders who overthrew his government. We already know the military was prepared to murder, torture, and disappear thousands of Chileans. We also know they joked about throwing Allende out of an airplane in the event of his surrender. There is also much to suggest, as I explain in Allende’s Chile and the Inter-American Cold War, that Allende refused the Cubans’ advice to go to the outskirts of Santiago and lead a lengthy resistance struggle against the military, preferring instead to do what he had been promising to do for nearly two years: namely to defend his democratic mandate with his life from La Moneda. In choosing to die in the presidential palace rather than prepare, at the age of 65, to fight an arduous resistance struggle against Chile’s Armed Forces, Salvador Allende hoped the world would remember him as the president who sacrificed his life defending Chile’s proud democratic history as bombs rained down on downtown Santiago.

In this he succeeded. Besides John F. Kennedy, it is hard to think of any other president who, after merely three years in power, grabs headlines around the world in the same way decades after his death. The big question now is whether it is time to move on from conspiracy theories and intricate questions about the way he died, and to look at the broader significance of his goals, his presidency, and the socialist revolution in Chile that failed to materialize.

Tanya Harmer is lecturer in international history at the London School of Economics and author of Allende’s Chile and the Inter-American Cold War (forthcoming October 2011).