SANTIAGO, Chile – Famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda died nearly half a century ago and has been buried several times since then, with his fourth (and latest burial) having taken place last week after his body was tested again for the true cause of death.
Neruda, Chile’s most famous writer, died on September 23, 1973 under suspicious circumstances in a Santiago hospital.
In April of 2013, Neruda’s remains were exhumed from his resting place near his home in Isla Negra, a town some two hours west of Santiago on the Pacific coast. A lifelong lover and admirer of all things nautical, Neruda’s remains, along with his wife’s, were buried in graves facing the ocean. He was exhumed that year over concerns about the Nobel Prize winner’s demise.
After an initial investigation, several Chilean and foreign forensic experts ruled out Neruda’s death as a poisoning.
Patricio Bustos, a former left-wing politician and head of the Servicio Médico Legal, the Chilean Forensic Service, made the announcement that “no traces of chemical agents have been found” in the remains. He also added that experts agreed that cancer was most likely responsible for Neruda’s death.
Bustos made the declaration after the legendary poet’s remains were examined by several experts in several locations for more than six months. His remains were tested by experts in Chile, the United States and Spain. In addition, teams arrived in Chile from as far away as Switzerland, India and elsewhere to help in the investigation.
Pablo Neruda was born Ricardo Eliécer Neftali Reyes Basoalto in 1904. Just ten years later, the young child began writing poems and was published at the tender age of 17. He chose the pen name ‘Pablo Neruda’ in homage to the Czech poet Jan Neruda and traveled the world, developing a taste for foreign cultures.
Neruda also became involved in left-wing activism and politics, having served as a Senator on behalf of the Communist Party of Chile during the 1940s.
Once the party was outlawed in 1948 by then-President Gabriel González Videla, he was harassed for his views by authorities and sheltered himself from arrest by hiding in the homes of friends for over a year. He eventually fled to Buenos Aires and spent three years travelling extensively before returning to Chile in 1952 as the González Videla government ended.
After several unsuccessful attempts, leftist Salvador Allende won the presidency in 1970 and Neruda, his good friend, served in diplomatic positions including Consul General of Chile in Mexico City and Ambassador to France. He continued writing and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971.
Amid skyrocketing popularity worldwide and deteriorating health, Neruda saw President Allende overthrown by a violent, right-wing military junta on September 11, 1973.
At the time, Neruda was being treated for prostate cancer and just 12 days after General Augusto Pinochet rose to power as head of the junta, Neruda passed away at the age of 69. He died in the Santa María Clinic in the Chilean capital just hours after receiving an injection, something that would become the controversial point in later years.
The official cause of death given by the clinic initially was heart failure, but the clinic later claimed that it had no such records of disclosing the cause of death. They also added later that the cause was, in fact, the spread of cancer in his body (that began in the prostate).
Given that Neruda was a famous and influential (and targeted) Communist Party member whose home was raided and trashed by authorities shortly after the coup, suspicions were immediately raised about the involvement of the authorities in his death and how such a prominent figure’s records seem to disappear.
Neruda was buried in the General Cemetery of Santiago two days after his death, and the funeral was the first public display of protest and indignation at the newly-installed dictatorship of Pinochet, who would rule with an iron fist until 1990.
During these 17 years, over 40,000 people were victims of grave human rights abuses in the South American country, including kidnapping, torture, rape, forced disappearance and murder, and that number could be even higher according to some estimates. Additionally, some 200,000 Chileans were forced out or fled their country during the dictatorship, with tens of thousands still in exile.
This was part of Operation Condor, a period of systematic political repression and state-sponsored terror involving cooperating international intelligence organizations conducted by the right-wing dictatorships of South America, including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay. This was all done with the staunch financial, logistical and political support from the United States. The program’s purpose was to “eradicate communist or Soviet influence and ideas,” and to suppress and eliminate any opposition, real or imagined, against those dictatorships.
Given that Neruda was possibly the most well-known Latin American left-leaning figure, suspicions of state intervention in his death only grew and just months after he was buried, friends and colleagues asked Matilde Urrutia, Neruda’s widow, to move his remains to a more nondescript grave in fears of vandalism or destruction by the dictatorship and he was re-buried.
In 1992, two years after the return of democracy, Neruda’s remains were exhumed and he was given a full state funeral. He was then buried in Isla Negra, as he had always desired.
The issue of Neruda’s death, however, was raised again in 2011 when his former personal assistant and driver Manuel Araya claimed the poet was poisoned while undergoing medical treatment.
“On the morning of 23 September, Matilde and I went back to Isla Negra to collect some of his belongings,” Araya says. “While at the house, we received a phone call from him while he was in the clinic. ‘Come back here quickly,’ Neruda said. ‘While I was sleeping, a doctor came in and injected me with something in my stomach.'”
“He died later that evening,” Araya said. “Neruda was murdered. They didn’t want Neruda to leave the country so they killed him. Until the day I die, I will not alter my story,” Araya said. Regarding Neruda’s possible departure, it is widely believed that the poet planned to flee the dictatorship to Mexico, where he previously served in a diplomatic post, and campaign against the junta as a sort of government-in-exile.
Interestingly, Matilde Urrutia, who passed away in 1985, said that her husband did not die of cancer but never accused authorities of being involved. His children, however, have followed the official government storyline and have said that their father died from cancer.
Eduardo Contreras, a lawyer and member of the Communist Party that has led the push for an official state investigation into Neruda’s death, backed Araya’s claims. Citing historians’ research that found Neruda was sick but not in immediate danger of dying nor was he exhibiting symptoms associated with prostate cancer degradation, they have held on to the belief that the former member of their party was killed by the junta.
Despite the forensics tests that showed no trace of chemical agents in Neruda’s remains in 2013, the case into his death, presided over by Judge Mario Carroza, has continued as lawyers alleged that biological agents were not examined and that different poisons could not be detected based on the type and amount used.
The case remains open as more criminal and biological evidence is uncovered and gathered, including the role played by a nurse at the clinic and two more forensic tests conducted in Canada and Denmark, but Carroza ordered the remains returned to Neruda’s family and he was buried, yet again, at Isla Negra.
Before the remains were returned to their resting place, however, they were placed in a coffin that was wrapped in the Chilean flag and displayed in a hall of honor in the Chilean Congress. Thousands of Chileans filed through the hall to bid goodbye to one of the nation’s most famous sons.
Indeed, even with the forensic teams’ findings in recent years, it did little to allay the suspicions of Chileans concerning Neruda’s death, and the opaque narrative from the years of the dictatorship has only complicated the case.
Eduardo Frei Montalva, President of Chile from 1964 to 1970, shared a similar fate as Neruda. An initial supporter of the overthrow of the democratically-elected Allende, Frei Montalva would later become a vocal critic of the Pinochet dictatorship.
He underwent a low-risk surgery in 1982 to treat a hiatal hernia at the very same clinic where Neruda died, and like Neruda, Frei Montalva would not leave. Official reports claimed he died as a result of an infection, but an investigation later found thallium and mustard gas in his system, two chemicals that would wreak havoc on Frei Montalva’s immune system and prevent him from recovering from surgery. A group of military figures who were accused of poisoning seven political prisoners were later implicated in Frei Montalva’s death.
Yet another prominent figure would lose his life under dubious circumstances during the dictatorship. José Tohá, a journalist and Socialist Party of Chile politician who served as Allende’s Interior Minister and Defense Minister, lost his life in 1974 after enduring months of brutal torture by military officials. The government claimed he had hanged himself, but this was later found to be false as a team of investigators concluded that Tohá was strangled to death while being tortured.