An embassy cable published this week by WikiLeaks revealed a 2009 email in which then-U.S ambassador to Chile, Paul Simons, predicted that former President Eduardo Frei Montalva’s controversial 1982 death would never be fully understood. “The tragic recent history of Chile continues to divide its people, and the death of this emblematic President seems destined to remain a mystery.”
The cable, published by Spanish newspaper El País, was released just weeks after the centennial anniversary of Frei Montalva’s birth and an announcement that Chile’s government would re-open the investigation into Frei’s death. The death of former President Salvador Allende at the start of the military dictatorship (1973) will also be investigated.
Ambassador Simons expressed doubt that the truth would ever be discovered. “Due to the many years that have passed since Frei’s death and the decomposition of vital organs, forensic science cannot demonstrate definitive evidence to pin point the original cause of death,” wrote the ambassador.
Chilean President Sebastian Piñera announced Tuesday that the government will continue the investigations into Frei’s death, as “it is not only important for the Frei family, but also for all of Chile.” He continued, “Our government must collaborate to show that the death of a former president does not remain in the shadows and so that the circumstances, the causes, and those responsible will all be clearly established.”
Yet the leaked cable expressed less optimism. “Even when a judicial decision is eventually reached in the case, Frei's death — like many other events surrounding the Allende and Pinochet governments — is likely to remain controversial, with Chilean opinions about the matter based more on ideology than fact.”
Frei, a Christian Democrat, was president of Chile from 1964 to 1970. The leader was highly popular with U.S. presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, which meant to counter Communist influence in Latin America, gave large amounts of foreign aid to Chile, greatly benefiting Frei and his presidency.
Despite his opposition to Communism, Frei initially accepted the 1970 election of socialist President Salvador Allende. However three years into the Allende presidency, and with the country in chaos Frei was among those who passively supported the 1973 coup led by recently appointed Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Frei, like many other coup supporters, expected the military to return the government to civilian hands within a year or two.
But as the years passed and Pinochet remained in power, Frei began to oppose the dictatorship, joining with opposition labour leaders like Tucapel Jimenez to create political opposition the dictatorship.
In January 1982 he entered the hospital for a routine hernia surgery, from which he died months later, never having fully recovered from the operation. The death was officially attributed to septicaemia, an infection related to the surgery, but many accused Pinochet’s secret police, the DINA, of poisoning the former president in order to silence his criticism.
As Simons explained in the leaked cable, the military dictatorship was marked by a number of assassinations of political opponents, including Carlos Prats, a former army commander-in-chief, Orlando Letilier, former foreign minister, and Bernardo Leighton, a leader of the Christian Democratic Party. “In addition, the intelligence service is known to have secretly operated laboratories dedicated to developing chemical and biological agents to be used in targeting political enemies.”
In 209 Judge Alejandro Madrid opened a case against six defendants implicated in Frei’s death. The case was criticized, however, for coinciding with the presidential elections in which current President Sebastián Piñera was running against Frei’s son, Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle. The case re-opened in 2010 after a failed attempt to disqualify Judge Madrid.
Suspicions about Frei’s death are supported by a strange autopsy performed without the family’s consent. The cable explains, “The highly unusual autopsy was allegedly performed in the hospital room where Frei died, using a ladder to hang the body upside down in order to drain bodily fluids into the bathtub. Some organs, and in particular those whose chemical compositions might indicate poisoning, were removed and destroyed, and the body was embalmed.”
According to La Tercera, doctors who participated in the autopsy claim the embalmment was meant to preserve the leader’s body for the wake, not to destroy evidence of an assassination.
By Amanda Reynoso-Palley – Santiago Times