The Two and a Half Burials of Salvador Allende

The second grave at Santiago's General Cemetery

His widow was never allowed to see the body, which was removed from the presidential palace by Chilean firefighters and flown in a military aircraft to the coastal city of Vina del Mar, where it was quickly buried with little ceremony.  A full state funeral was held 17 years later, when an elected civilian took over the presidency from General Augusto Pinochet and the coffin was moved to Santiago’s Cementerio General. And now the body will be moved again.

In February a Chilean judge opened an official inquiry into the death of Salvador Allende, who died on September 11, 1973 as air force jets strafed the presidential palace.  This past week he accepted the petition of Allende’s family to exhume the body and establish once and for all how the former president died.  His daughter Isabel, a member of the Chilean senate, says that while she believes Allende committed suicide it is important to have “the most rigorous and definitive proof” to put an end to the suicide-or-murder speculation that has lingered for nearly four decades. The exhumation and autopsy will take place during the second half of May.

In other news from Chile:  This week’s Economist has an interesting story on maternity leave in Chile and how the Pinera government’s effort to extend this provision might not have the desired effect:

Extra maternity leave would probably not bring many more women into the workforce. Most local economists say that the biggest obstacle to female employment in Chile is the country’s restrictive labour laws. One requires companies that employ 20 or more women to pay for child care. Little wonder that so many Chilean firms have precisely 19 female workers. Another rule prevents businesses from firing women for two years after they become pregnant—creating an incentive to fire them earlier, or not to hire women of childbearing age at all.

The General’s Sunday Pass

He was the last of the Pinochet regime’s security chiefs to be sentenced for human rights abuses, though the crimes for which he was prosecuted occurred when he was an army regiment commander in northern Chile.  Odlanier Mena began serving a six-year prison sentence in 2009 for his role in the deaths of three Socialist Party members shortly after the 1973 coup. And like other former officers jailed on such charges, he is not in a regular prison but in a special facility specifically built for human rights offenders. The Punta Peuco prison, located on the outskirts of Santiago, holds around 70 such inmates and is considerably more comfortable than a standard Chilean jail.

And it turns out that since February of this year Mena, 85, has not been spending all of his time there. The Chilean press reports that on Sundays he has been granted a day pass, allowing him to leave the prison after 7 a.m. and returning that evening by 10. Human rights organizations are outraged, but the prison grants such privileges to those inmates whose cases have been approved by a panel that includes social workers and psychologists. And Chilean President Sebastian Pinera has floated the idea of allowing some elderly and terminally ill prisoners to serve their remaining sentences under house arrest.

Some interesting background: Mena became director of the Chilean secret police in 1977, when Pinochet removed General Manuel Contreras, indicted by a U.S. court for the car bomb assassination of a Chilean exile leader and his American colleague in Washington the previous year.  The Direccion Nacional de Inteligencia, DINA, became the Central Nacional de Informaciones, or CNI.  According to the Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation the CNI “concentrated more on political intelligence than on repression” under Mena and “the number of fatal human rights violations cases declined dramatically.” Declined, perhaps, but abuses continued, and the report emphasized that this hardly “justifies in the least the unlawful behavior of the CNI when it executed people who had been captured or who could be captured without great risk.”

Though no softie, Mena incurred the wrath of his predecessor, Manuel Contreras, who asked one of his agents to prepare a lethal poison to slip into his tea.  Contreras is being held at another special facility for high profile prisoners, the Penal Cordillera, administered by the Chilean army.