Chile exhumes former President Salvador Allende

Chilean investigators pried off a concrete slab and carried a flag-draped coffin to a laboratory Monday, hoping to put an end to the 38-year-old debate about how President Salvador Allende died.

In doing so, Chile joined the growing number of Latin American countries that have dusted off their dead in the name of nationalism and forensics.

Chilean medical examiners said they did not know how long it would take to determine Allende’s cause of death. What is known is that on Sept. 11, 1973, the body of the socialist icon was pulled from the national palace during a military coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power and helped define the Cold War.

An eyewitness claims Allende shot himself with an AK-47 given to him by Fidel Castro as bombs rained down on the palace. But a rushed autopsy and the ensuing years of military rule only fueled suspicions that he was executed. A medical examiner probing 736 alleged rights abuse cases ordered an exhumation to determine which version is right.

But digging up the dead is about more than just determining the cause of death for Allende, an increasingly important historic figure and founding father of the Latin American left, said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, D.C.

“He would probably be far more valuable dead as a result of external violence than suicide,” said Birns, who was in Chile during the coup. “He presented himself as a heroic figure and presumably the coda of that story would require him being murdered by the anti-democratic forces of the country.”

Latin America has a rich history of disinterring its heroes.

In 2006, the body of Argentina’s former president, Juan Domingo Perón, who died one year after Allende, was moved from its crypt in Buenos Aires to a museum. In 2008, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa moved some of the ashes of independence hero Eloy Alfaro to a new mausoleum. And last year, Mexican President Felipe Calderon ordered the exhumation of 12 independence figures, only to find two extra bodies mixed in among their remains.

Perhaps the most analogous case to Allende’s took place last year, when Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez opened the tomb of Latin America’s founding father, Simón Bolívar, hoping to prove that he was poisoned.

The procedure was broadcast live on TV and Chávez live-Tweeted the event, but since then the government has largely been silent.

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