More on Allende

Just wanted to comment briefly on the Allende suicide. Two important aspects of this, both directly tied to what we could consider an international memory movement, are its ramifications for a national historical narrative and its ties to the broader movement to exhume the victims of state terror and civil war.

On the first point, it is worth pointing out that for many years, conservative historians in Chile have used Allende’s suicide to make an argument against his moral character. Gonzalo Vial, a historian who briefly served as Minister of Education during the Pinochet regime (and, somewhat strangely, later served on the Rettig Commission in the early 1990s), used suicide as a way to periodize history. In his massive national history tome from the early 1980s, Vial wrote in his introduction that Chile’s recent past could effectively be examined as “entre los dos suicidios” – between the two suicides – of President Balmaceda in 1891 and President Allende in 1973. Balmaceda’s suicide during civil war, in part, symbolized the closing of the door on strong, executive, Portalian style government and ushered in an era of strong, oligarchic, Parliamentary leadership. This style of government was very distasteful to a set of conservative intellectuals who later influenced Vial. They labeled this period “la decadencia nacional,” or a period of national decline, taking a cue from Oswald Spengler in Europe. Allende’s suicide, for intellectuals such as Vial, symbolized the end of this period of decline, as the military now offered, they hoped, redemption and a return to past (read pre-1891) form. Thus, in a way, Allende’s suicide lent legitimacy and justification for this narrative, as it allowed for neat historical framing while providing the right with material for claiming “told ya so” on his character. In part, some members of the left have long fought the official story of suicide so as not to lend credence to this narrative and to the military’s sense of self-legitimacy in overthrowing a morally loose leader.

Second, the decision to revisit the question of Allende’s suicide is not an isolated occurrence. Similar exhumations have become more and more popular over the past ten to fifteen years in countries with a recent past of state terror and/or civil war. In Spain, for example, judge Baltazar Garzon, the man behind the indictment of Pinochet in London in 1998, has spent significant energy over the past decade supporting his own country’s growing call for exhumations of victims of war and state violence. This is a direct move away from the post-Franco official policy of “olvido,” or forgetting, so as to not damage a perceived young and fragile democracy with painful and unsettling questions.

Even though the Allende question appears to be settled, it represents an interesting moment on a variety of fronts, including Chile’s political progress (?) away from the legacies of dictatorship, debates over and perceptions of the national past, and the growing popularity of exhumations and other such direct dealings with painful questions of state violence around the world.

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