Allende’s Death in Chile: Suicide or Murder?

The military coup in Chile led by General Ugarte Augusto Pinochet and others in 1973 culminated in the death of Chile’s Marxist president, Salvador Allende (1908-1973). Controversy continues to surround the death of Allende, specifically did he take his own life in September 1973, or was he summarily executed on Pinochet’s orders by troops.

During the coup, Allende and some of his most trusted bodyguards and advisers remained in Chile’s capital city, Santiago, in the country’s presidential residence, Le Moneda. It was later claimed and supported by Allende’s wife, Hortensia Bussi Allende, that President Allende, rather than be taken prisoner, killed himself. Yet other reports have it that Allende was machine-gunned to death by troops invading the palace. Still another claim, inconclusive, insists that Allende was assassinated by CIA agents on orders from U.S. officials who thought Allende, a staunch communist supporter, was dangerous to American interests in the Western Hemisphere.

News of the revolt against his regime reached Allende early on the morning of September 11, 1973. He learned that Chilean navy personnel at Valparaiso and truckloads of armed sailors were en route to Santiago. He attempted to call his military commanders with no success. At 6:30 a.m., Allende called Orlando Letelier, one of his most trusted ministers, and informed him of the uprising. “The carabineros are the only units that respond,” he said. “The other commanders don’t answer the phone. Pinochet doesn’t answer.”

Allende asked Letelier to find out what he could about the revolt and later ordered him to take over the defense ministry before troops overran the building in Santiago, but by then it was too late. Pinochet’s troops were in full control of the city, except for Le Moneda Palace.

The palace was held by Allende’s loyal forces until 3 p.m. They had fought bitterly for control of the building, the symbol of power, and one report had it that the military junta bombed the palace from the air. Troops from the garrison stationed at Tacna overran the palace a little after 3 p.m. and it was at this time, according to one report, that “Allende was killed by a burst of machine gun fire.”

This claim was later hotly contested by officials in the United States and in Chile who insisted Allende blew his brains out with an automatic just as the Tacna Regiment stormed into Le Moneda. This latter claim was, at first, endorsed by Mrs. Hortensia Allende, but she repudiated her statements made in Chile after flying to exile in Mexico. There she stated that her husband had been assassinated, a murder decreed by the right-wing military junta conducting the successful coup.

The most outspoken critic of the Pinochet regime, Letelier, who survived his own execution, insisted that Allende had been executed. Letelier left Chile following the 1973 coup but was later assassinated in Washington, D.C., in 1976.

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