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Allende Exhumation Shows Chile Ready to Lay Past to Rest

Former Chilean President Salvador Allende
Picture taken in 1970 in Santiago, of the then Chilean president Salvador Allende. Photographer: STF/AFP/Getty Images

May 23 (Bloomberg) -- Investigators in Chile exhumed Salvador Allende’s remains today as part of an inquiry into the former president’s death in a coup d’état 37 years ago.

Allende died during a September 1973 military attack against the presidential palace that led to 17 years of dictatorial rule. The Allende family requested the exhumation as part of a judicial probe into whether the Socialist Party leader was killed or committed suicide during the coup.

The investigation has the support of opposing political coalitions, making it a symbol of Chile’s democratic maturity, said Mauricio Morales, a political scientist at Diego Portales University in Santiago. No such consensus existed immediately following the end of the dictatorship in the early 1990s and a formal probe at that time would certainly have aggravated rifts between political parties and the military just as Chile’s nascent democracy was taking root, he said.

“These investigations don’t polarize Chile’s political elite like they would have in the early nineties,” Morales said in a May 18 telephone interview. “That exemplifies the consolidation of Chile’s democracy.”

After the dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet ended in 1990 with the presidency of Patricio Aylwin, Chileans were reluctant to delve into the past because coup participants were still politically active and ran the military, said Patricio Navia, a specialist in Chilean politics at New York University.

Stable Democracy

Two decades later, most of those directly involved in the dictatorship have faded from political life. President Sebastian Pinera’s government, which last year ousted the coalition that had governed the country since Pinochet left office, has vowed to support the Allende investigation to distance itself from memories of the dictatorship, Navia said.

“People previously didn’t want to look into the past too carefully because it would destabilize the emerging democracy,” Navia said. “Now that democracy is very stable and the past is gone; history can come in and do its job. This investigation will serve more of a historical purpose than anything else.”

Based on witness’ accounts and government findings, most historians agree that Allende chose to commit suicide during the coup rather than surrender to military forces, Patrick Barr-Melej, chair of the history department at Ohio University, said in a telephone interview.

‘Political Solidarity’

Allende’s family also believes the president took his own life, one of his daughters, Senator Isabel Allende told the dozens of reporters and photographers who covered today’s event at the national cemetery.

“Our conviction is that President Allende decided to die in an act of political solidarity to defend the mandate given to him by the people,” said the Socialist Party senator.

For Dr. Luis Ravanal, a forensic expert, the 1973 autopsy report suggests Allende was shot in the head with two guns. That may mean he didn’t act alone in committing suicide or his death was a homicide, Ravanal said in a May 19 interview.

Ravanal is submitting a report on his findings to the judiciary.

Proving that Allende’s death was homicide and not suicide would be a surprise though it wouldn’t alter the historical significance of what happened that day in 1973, Barr-Melej said.

“Either way, Allende wouldn’t have died without the coup,” he said. “I don’t see anything concrete coming out of the investigation other than getting a fact straight and helping a family come to terms with a tragedy, and helping a country come to terms with understanding at least another fact of a tragedy.”

Report Findings

After exhuming the body today, a team of investigators including ballistic experts, doctors and anthropologists will examine the remains and submit a report of their findings to the judiciary, Patricio Bustos, director of the state medical service that oversees the exhumation, said last week.

Chile’s judiciary has not set a deadline to finish the investigation, the magistrate in charge of the investigation, Mario Carroza, told reporters at today’s exhumation.

“It’s important that the judiciary is investigating what happened to the victims of a period of history,” he said. “This is one more investigation, and could be the most historic.”

‘Part of History’

The investigation has been overshadowed in the media by current-day human rights-related issues such as alleged police brutality during protests against the HidroAysen hydroelectric project, Morales said.

Thousands of protesters marched throughout Chile last weekend to protest HidroAysen, which would flood Patagonian valleys to supply electricity to central Chile. Students earlier this month protested in downtown Santiago to demand improvements to the public education system, at times clashing with police.

It’s a sign of democratic maturity that, rather than focusing on controversies of the past, Chileans are protesting issues that they believe will impact their future, Navia said.

“You want people to worry about things that affect their lives, and democracy is supposed to help that,” he said. “The dictatorship is part of history. HidroAysen speaks to a future and the kind of country and society that Chile wants to have.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Randall Woods in Santiago at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Joshua Goodman at

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