The Deaths of Salvador Allende and Juan Maria Bordaberry

These stories are a bit old, dating back to July, but they are pertinent to several themes that will probably be recurring on this blog from various contributors, so I’d like to add a bit to them.

First, a recent report has concluded that Salvador Allende did in fact commit suicide in the face of a military coup. On September 11, 1973, Chile’s army, air force, navy, and police launched a coup against Allende, during which there was intense aerial bombing of the presidential palace where Allende was holed up. His death was never a secret, but for years, people speculated on whether he had killed himself, or whether the military invaders of the palace had murdered him. Over the years, the arguments for the military murdering Allende were pretty weak. It wasn’t really clear why the military would martyr Allende rather than keeping him alive to publicly humiliate him through trials, imprisonment, or other methods. On the other hand, Allende probably realized that his future in a successful military coup was far from bright, and he seemed to have accepted his possible role as a martyr whose cause would prove just in the long-term historical record. His final radio address (audio here) to the Chilean nation seems to back up this understanding; there are many passages that indicate he was already attempting to frame the long-term debate over the coup, and his final words to the nation seem particularly to  mold the way Allende himself would enter history:

Estas son mis últimas palabras y tengo la certeza de que mi sacrificio no será en vano, tengo la certeza de que, por lo menos, será una lección moral que castigará la felonía, la cobardía y la traición.

These are my last words, and I am certain that my sacrifice will not be in vain, I am certain that, at the very least, it will be a moral lesson that will punish felony, cowardice, and treason.

Rhetorically, it’s hard not to imagine Allende had already decided his path; his language is full of martyrdom (and I mean that in a non-perjorative way), reiterating the things he has done in the past while alluding to future events of which he is not a part. Put another way, he acknowledges his actions of the past, but suggests he will not be directly participating in actions of the future. In this regard, Allende’s words aren’t so different in tone from Brazilian president Getulio Vargas, who committed suicide in 1954 and who wrote in his note, “Nothing remains except my blood. I gave you my life, now I give you my death. I choose this way to defend you, for my soul will be with you, my name shall be a flag for your struggle. […] I take the first step to eternity. I leave life to enter history.” While Allende’s words were not quite as dramatic, the tone was not dissimilar to that of Vargas’s.

Some might wonder why this matters; after all, regardless of how Allende died, he was dead, and the government that replaced him murdered over 3,000 of its own civilians and tortured tens of thousands more. Yet as the atrocities of the Pinochet regime became increasingly clear and society polarized over the consequences of the coup, Allende’s martyrdom could and did give meaning to his supporters that their cause was just and worth dying for. That the historical record seems to suggest that Allende did commit suicide, those struggles gain a greater legitimacy not only in their supporters’ minds, but in the minds of Chile more generally, where the narrative has largely shifted from a pro-military account that viewed the coup as the salvation of Chile from “Communism,” to today’s narrative of the Pinochet regime as a brutally violent and corrupt one.

On the other end of the spectrum, former Uruguyan dictator Juan Maria Bordaberry also died in July. Overshadowed by its higher-profile counterparts in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, the Uruguayan dictatorship had a unique dynamic. Under Bordaberry, violence from the radical right and left increased, the Uruguayan government moved to declare a state of “internal war,” effectively giving the military greater power by 1973. While Bordaberry was initially seen as a puppet for the military, the civilian “front” for military rule, the internal dynamics were much stranger. Over time, Bordaberry became increasingly zealous, ruling by decree while demanding even more action from the military. By 1976,  Bordaberry’s policies were troublesome even to the military leaders, who removed Bordaberry for a less ambitious civilian leader.  Ultimately,after years of escaping justice via an amnesty decree that forgave torturers and politicians and military leaders who ordered the murders of “subversives,” authorities arrested Bordaberry for the murder of two legislators in Argentina. Exploiting a loophole that did not cover murders committed in other countries via Operation Condor, police arrested Bordaberry, and he was eventually sentenced to a 30-year prison sentence, a near-certain life-sentence for a man of his age, and, while under house-arrest, he died at 83 on July 17, offering yet another example of the ways in which justice caught up with South American dictators in spite of their best efforts to avoid punishment.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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