Published November 17, 2014
Nearly 38 years after President Salvador Allende died in a military coup and became a Cold War martyr of the international left, his body is being exhumed Monday in an exercise that even now is fraught with political overtones.
The hope is that forensics can solve an enduring mystery: whether Chile's socialist leader committed suicide or was murdered by the troops who mounted Gen. Augusto Pinochet's ferocious attack on the presidential palace.
With the Allende family's blessing, Judge Mario Carroza has convened a panel of top forensic experts, seven Chileans and five foreigners. He also seeks evidence that could support charges of crimes against humanity in the killing of hundreds of people who were tortured and disappeared in the days after the Sept. 11, 1973 coup, including many who shared Allende's last stand.
"This will be tremendously important, because with this it will be possible to dispel any doubts or speculation," Sen. Isabel Allende said recently as she went to court to ask for her father's autopsy.
Questions surfaced almost immediately after the assault on the palace, partly because Pinochet's military botched the initial investigation and then covered up or staged details of Allende's death as it set out to expunge him from public memory.
For those who saw Allende as the world's best hope or most serious threat of revolutionary change, just how he died matters deeply. Was it suicide by AK-47 assault rifle, as maintained by the only man claiming to have witnessed that moment? Or did Allende go down fighting, as Cuba's Fidel Castro claimed? Might his body have been shredded by soldiers' bullets, as two Latin American Nobel literature laureates, Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, have written?
Dr. Patricio Guijon, a member of Allende's medical team, reaffirmed his account of suicide Tuesday in an Associated Press interview, saying he still vividly recalled the instant when he saw 65-year-old Allende blow his head open.
By that point, the bombardment of the palace had gone on for hours, the noise was deafening, machine gun fire was coming down from all sides and rockets fired by fighter jets were pulverizing the 18th century palace walls. Guijon said he carefully moved the weapon from between Allende's legs and set it on a nearby chair.
"I sat down by his side. People find this hard to believe, but I must have been there for 15 or 20 minutes, absolutely alone, in the Hall of Independence, with the president's corpse ... sitting, scared to death and having no idea what would happen," he said.
Guijon supports the military's claim that Allende killed himself with the AK-47 Castro had given him, and said no other bullets were fired after soldiers arrived and eventually carried off the body.
Arrested and sent to a remote penal colony for three months, Guijon emerged a pariah, suspected of being either an Allende sympathizer or a Pinochet apologist.
Meanwhile, socialists worldwide mourned Allende's death and blamed the U.S. for plotting to ruin their best model of peaceful revolutionary change.
"Young people all over the continent believed this (change) was possible and were working on this day in day out in universities and factories. There were hundreds of thousands and maybe millions of activists who were trying to bring this about. That was what was defeated in Allende more than anything else — Allende was the highwater mark of the revolutionary idea in Latin America," said John Dinges, who investigated Pinochet for his book "The Condor Years."
Allende's election in 1970 had been hailed by the left as proof that socialism and democracy could go together. But the Cold War was still at its height, and wealthy elites in the developing world had a visceral fear of communist takeovers.
With Cuba's revolution just a decade old, and Vietnam threatening to fall to communism as well, U.S. President Richard Nixon set the stage for Pinochet's coup with a covert campaign to wreck Chile's economy.
According to his own words in documents declassified years later, Nixon wanted to show the world that Allende was a failure. Suicide served this rhetoric well, by suggesting that Pinochet and his covert U.S. supporters weren't responsible, and that by extension, Allende's socialist experiment also failed of its own accord.
Then again, Allende clearly intended to avoid being taken prisoner, a humiliation he felt would dishonor the presidency, Dinges said.
And while most people can accept the suicide narrative, many Chilean leftists still believe he was murdered. "It's a political mandate, to assert that the military killed Allende," he said.
Dr. Luis Ravanal, a forensic expert not involved in Allende's latest autopsy, has challenged apparent anomalies in the seven-page typewritten description of Allende's corpse that was prepared after a rushed autopsy in a military hospital. He says it suggests Allende could have been wounded by a pistol and then finished off with the AK-47. He also claims the AK-47 Chile's military displayed wasn't the weapon Castro had given Allende.
"This deduction puts in doubt the only witness. This is what they need to investigate," Ravanal said in an interview.
Pathologists say a corpse can reveal many secrets decades later, but Allende's body has suffered several indignities. Ravenal said the initial autopsy was done without forensic tools or proper photographs. Then the military didn't let his widow see the extent of his wounds, rushing to bury the closed casket in his brother-in-law's crypt.
As democracy was finally restored in 1990, his body was removed, again in a secretive nighttime operation, before it was reburied with honors in the capital's General Cemetery.
A video of that exhumation shows the bottom had fallen out of his coffin. Ravanal, for one, fears the new autopsy won't be conclusive if bone fragments were left in the old crypt, or worse, thrown away. "They've thrown the history of the country in the trash and (along with it) the possibilities of clearing up the mystery that has been the death of Allende," he said.
Where pathology failed, ideology filled the gaps, feeding countless debates over the lessons of Pinochet's coup. Some leftist guerrillas said Allende's downfall proved armed revolution was their only option, unleashing kidnappings and bombings that encouraged other dictatorships to intensify their brutality.
The Pinochet regime tried to erase Allende's legacy by rebuilding the palace without the room where he died and replacing the palace exit from which his corpse was carried with a blank wall.
Today that door has been restored, and a statue of the dead president stands outside the palace. The pedestal is engraved with his last words to the nation, delivered in a radio address as the palace went up in flames.
In countries where social democracies have become the norm and power routinely changes hands peacefully, many consider these words to be prophetic:
"Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment in which treason attempts to impose itself. You will continue, knowing that much sooner than later, grand avenues will reopen where free men shall pass, to build a better society."