Raising the dead: Exhuming the bodies of presidents and poets has become common practice in Latin America

Oct 21, 2013 | 0 comments

By Simon Romero

In the aftermath of Chile’s 1973 military coup, the Nobel Prize-winning poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda was found dead. Although he was long thought to have perished from prostate cancer, a judge recently ordered his remains exhumed from a grave overlooking the Pacific Ocean to investigate claims that he was poisoned.

The same year as Chile’s coup, soldiers in the Dominican Republic executed Francisco Caamaño, a guerrilla leader and former president. Forensic experts recently unearthed remains thought to be his, four decades after he was killed, in hopes of identifying and depositing them in the Dominican Republic’s pantheon of heroes.

chl allende1Ghosts are also stirring in Brazil, as officials examine claims that two former civilian presidents, João Goulart and Juscelino Kubitschek, were assassinated in 1976. Lacking proof, investigators say they will soon exhume Mr. Goulart, to see if he was poisoned by spies while in exile in Argentina, and Mr. Kubitschek’s driver, to determine whether a sniper caused the car crash that killed them both.

In country after country, Latin America is experiencing a wave of exhumations, reflecting not only the difficulty some political figures have finding serenity in the afterlife, but also the region’s willingness to resurrect unresolved questions and quarrels over its history, even if it literally involves digging up the past.

“Where history is not settled, the heroic dead continue to speak,” said Lyman Johnson, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina, who has explored Latin America’s tradition of exhumations.

Observers have been awed by some of the recent exhumations, like President Hugo Chávez’s 2010 televised disinterment in Venezuela of Simón Bolívar, a hero of South America’s independence wars, in an unsuccessful attempt to prove he died from arsenic poisoning by Colombian oligarchs. Historians still generally agree that tuberculosis killed Bolívar.

Other exhumations have attracted relatively little attention, like Ecuador’s decision in 2007 to transfer the ashes of José Eloy Alfaro, a former president who was beheaded, dismembered and burned by a mob in 1912, from coastal Guayaquil to a monument in his birthplace, the city of Montecristi.

The recent cycle of exhumations points to earlier patterns in the region, which has a tradition of digging up prominent corpses and submitting them to remarkably intrusive scrutiny, all the while contending that the exercise is for political purposes.

Some traditional centers of exhumation fever, like Mexico, have actually calmed down somewhat. Back in the 1920s, Mexican leaders were exhuming major figures from the War of Independence, placing them in a monument. Gone, too, is Mexico’s frenzy in the 1940s over disputed remains of the Aztec ruler Cuauhtémoc and the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés.

Now other countries, with Chile at the forefront, seem to be picking up the slack. Salvador Allende, the Chilean president toppled in the 1973 coup, was exhumed in 2011 so that investigators could determine whether he had committed suicide or been killed by his adversaries as they stormed the presidential palace. They concluded that he killed himself with an AK-47 assault rifle, confirming the official story.

A previous exhumation in 2004 in Chile of Eduardo Frei Montalva, president from 1964 to 1970, produced remarkable findings that encouraged new exhumations in Chile and beyond. While doctors had originally said that Mr. Frei Montalva died in 1982 from complications after surgery to treat a stomach ailment, investigators concluded that he had been poisoned with small doses of mustard gas and thallium, a highly toxic heavy metal.

Latin America is far from the only region where political or intellectual figures are unearthed, as shown by the 2012 exhumation of Yasir Arafat, the longtime Palestinian leader, to examine poisoning claims, and Spain’s attempts to find and identify the remains of the poet Federico García Lorca and others killed during the Spanish Civil War.

But whether to solve the mysteries of death or promote tales of heroism, Latin America is a region where digging up the dead and sometimes even mutilating their remains have long been a fixture of politics. Scholars say the practice may be the secularized continuation of customs from the time of early Christianity, when a vibrant trade involved the body parts of saints.

Brazil, Latin America’s largest country, has its own precedents, including the transport of remains across the Atlantic Ocean to reinforce the narrative of Brazil’s emergence as an independent nation. In the 1930s, the authoritarian regime of Getúlio Vargas collected the remains of the Inconfidentes, participants in an 18th-century separatist movement, from burial places in Africa, where they had died in exile, and reburied them in Minas Gerais State.

And in 1972, military rulers exhumed Pedro I, the first emperor of an independent Brazil, in Portugal and transferred his remains to a São Paulo monument. (Curiously, this operation did not include Pedro I’s heart, which remains in a church in Porto, Portugal, as requested in his will.)

Pedro I was removed from his imperial crypt yet again this year as an object of scientific study, reflecting advances in biochemical analysis and DNA testing. Other exhumations here involve using those methods to delve into more recent mysteries, as in the case of Mr. Goulart, the president toppled in a 1964 coup supported by the United States.

Pointing to testimony from a former Uruguayan intelligence operative, Mr. Goulart’s family claims that he did not die in exile in Argentina at age 58 from a heart attack, as reported in 1976, but from poisoning by agents of Operation Condor, a joint campaign by South American military dictatorships during the 1970s and ‘80s to collaborate on the kidnapping and killing of political dissidents.

“Everything leads us to believe he was killed,” said João Vicente Goulart, 56, a businessman who is a son of the president. “All we need is proof.”

A truth commission examining the abuses of Brazil’s long dictatorship is now preparing to exhume Mr. Goulart; the move is supported even by those who disagree with the theory that he was poisoned.

“His remains must be examined, if only to deal with the conspiracy theories and allow him to rest peacefully,” said Iberê Athayde Teixeira, a writer in São Borja, the city in southern Brazil where Mr. Goulart is buried.

Echoing Chile’s recent experiences, some of Brazil’s new exhumations, while rooted in disputed political history, have a character distinct from some disenterments of decades past.

“This is a democratic regime that is eventually, and at long last, coming to terms with its past,” said Kenneth Maxwell, a British historian and columnist for the newspaper Folha de São Paulo. “It is not aimed at the creation of myths but is an attempt to uncover what was at times a very ugly past.”

Credit: The New York Times, www.nytimes.com; Photo caption: The exhumation of Salvador Allende.


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