Communist Party of Australia

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Issue #1514      17 August 2011

Allende died defending the government and democracy

On September 11, 1973, General Augusto Pinochet staged a brutal, US-orchestrated military coup against the left-wing government of Chilean president Salvador Allende. President Allende, who had rushed to the palace to defend the government and democracy, was shot to death during the coup. His death was officially attributed to suicide following a questionable autopsy under the rule of the military junta. This finding has been widely disputed, particularly by the Left who accused the military of murdering him. Last month, the results of a new autopsy and investigation were released, also with the highly controversial finding of suicide. Dr Jose Quiroga, a cardiologist and Allende’s physician was in the palace at the time.

Dr Quiroga is a survivor of torture, including water boarding, while in detention under the Pinochet dictatorship. In 1977, he moved with his family to the US where he treated victims of torture on a voluntary basis for many years. He is a strenuous campaigner against the use of torture and has spoken on the treatment and rehabilitation of survivors at conferences around the world. He is the vice-president of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims and treasurer of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Dr Quiroga was in Sydney last week as the guest of STARTTS (Service for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors). He took time out to meet with members of the Latin American community, several of whom had also experienced torture under the Pinochet dictatorship.

Coup d’état

Dr Quiroga recalled in detail the events of that day, which are still indelibly printed in his memory. They knew a coup d’état was coming but not when. On Tuesday, September 11, 1973, he had left early in the morning to go to the hospital when he heard the coup was taking place.

When Dr Quiroga reached the hospital he was told to go to La Moneda, the presidential palace. He left his car at the hospital and walked to La Moneda. People were fleeing the Palace. He saw no sign of the military. He knocked on the door, entered and went to his section of the Palace, where there was a medical unit. President Allende had a serious heart condition and a team of cardiologists and physicians constantly monitored him.

Dr Quiroga divided the battle into two stages. The first was between 8am and 10am. The palace was crowded; he saw Allende wearing a helmet and carrying a machine gun that Fidel Castro had given him. Members of the security guard (GAP) were with him.

Defending democracy

At 10am Allende called everyone together. “I came to the government palace to defend democracy. I am going to remain,” Allende said. He asked those who did not have weapons, did not know how to use them, and the women to leave. A ceasefire enabled them to leave. Many left. Around 80 remained, including five doctors and Allende’s daughters. The police guards just left. Plain clothes detectives and personal guards remained.

The gates to the Palace were locked. The military began their attack on the Palace. Allende managed to make several radio broadcasts before the electricity was cut off. The military called for them to surrender. They refused.

Tear gas was used. “We could not breathe the air inside. Some gas masks were available. We were given them and could breathe. The rest of our skin was burning, the environment became more and more difficult,” Dr Quiroga told the Sydney meeting.

“Around 12 noon there was heavy bombing. The planes flew from north to south firing on top of La Moneda. The first rocket hit the second level where Allende was. A fire started and extended to where we were. There was a lot of smoke and fire, conditions were becoming more difficult.”

Around 2pm Allende decided they needed to surrender as many risked facing the military assaults, Dr Quiroga said. They went to the medical room. “I put on a white cloak with a red cross on it, hoping for some protection. Shots were flying from one side to the other. We had to crawl on the ground.

“I met Olivares, one of Allende’s closest friends. He had blown his head off. I put him on the ground, there was nothing I could do. I went up to the second story, went to tell people that Olivares was dying, that he had committed suicide.”

They used a broom and white tablecloth as a flag to indicate they were surrendering. There is a long hallway along the side of the Palace. The military had entered the palace and started coming up the steps. They stopped and arrested a group at the very end of the hallway. As they were walking along the corridor Allende walked towards them, next to the Independence Room. He said nothing, just went into the room on his own and closed the door behind him.

“There were three of us doctors, the head of the bodyguards and someone else, just us. At one point someone opened the door. I can see Salvador Allende looking towards the door, at us, his face, his head disappears. It is so marked in my memory. I knew immediately he committed suicide.

“Guijón [one of the doctors] went into the room … He took Allende’s weapon and said Allende had committed suicide. There were no army men in there at the time. They went in there later.”

They walked out to the street where General Palacios told them to lie on the ground. “There was a tank in front of us. General Palacios asked who were doctors and separated us. Told us to stand aside.” It appears he was trying to observe the Geneva Convention, sparing the non-military doctors.

Will never forget

“This is what I saw. Changes happened to me physiologically, the memory remains there.

“Guijón from the beginning said he committed suicide. The rest of us said nothing until now. We never spoke about it to each other.”

On September 28, Cuban President Fidel Castro said that the military had killed Allende. People on the Left used these comments. Guijón was not believed.

“In 1999, the head of the doctors said he would write a book about it. I sent him a statement. It was very difficult. I realised I had scars ... I had not gone through the process of grieving. I had said nothing.”

Dr Quiroga said his silence was political. The more who said the military killed Allende, the better.

“After 25 years it is no longer a political problem. People have a right to know the truth.” It now became a matter for the historical record.

Second autopsy

Dr Quiroga spoke about the original autopsy, describing the circumstances as “very irregular” and the findings contradictory. It suggested that a second shot had been fired that had not gone through his machine gun.

The recent autopsy, Dr Quiroga said, was very professional. Its conclusion is “suicide due to coup d’état”. His death was instantaneous. Allende’s family accepts the conclusions. “He did it defending democracy when he knew it was impossible to win. He went there to defend democracy. It does not take away his merits.”

“I spoke to Isabella [Allende’s daughter]. I have no doubt about it. I observed the instant when he died. It happened in a second. The military had not arrived at that point in time. They committed many atrocities later – for 20 years.”

Dr Quiroga, then briefly outlined some of the work he and others have done with other Chileans who had gone to the US. They worked on a program for Amnesty International, recording the events of torture and rehabilitating victims. They worked with teams including medical and psychological personnel.

Systemic state torture

He commented on the traumatic impact that the experience under the junta had on his own life, the post-traumatic stress disorder that he experienced writing a report on it several decades later. “For many years I thought it had not affected me, until I wrote those pages. Then I relived that event.”

In response to questions that followed, Dr Quiroga noted the involvement of the US in the coup. There are now many documents available showing how the US instituted it and that Pinochet had no part in its planning, just accepted the last minute offer to execute it.

On the question of torture, Dr Quiroga noted that the US presents itself as the “protector of democracy” but they use torture. “Under Bush they used systematic torture as a policy of state. Obama said he would not, but he continued to do it.

“It is a dark episode in human rights. Particularly for me, the participation of health professionals in it is horrendous. There are doctors experimenting for the CIA. There is a case of one person being water boarded 183 times!

“Those doctors practise water boarding – record the volume of water, how many times, the physiology…

“Many things happened in Chile. Over 60,000 were detained and tortured. We will have so many claims in relation to that. Some class actions are being made.

“The only way of stopping it is to create awareness and apply sanctions.”

Dr Quiroga spoke in Spanish.
The Guardian thanks Adriana Navarra whose simultaneous translation was used for this article.

There will be an interview with Dr Quiroga on torture in a coming issue of The Guardian.  

Next article – Culture & Life – Racism and a persistent wasteland

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