Pablo Neruda: Poet, Politician, Populist... Poisoned?

Forty years on from the death of Nobel Prize winning-poet Pablo Neruda, his body is to be exhumed in order to determine whether or not the military dictatorship led by General Pinochet had a hand in his demise. The exhumation was ordered at the behest of Judge Mario Carroza to clarify once and for all the controversy and conspiracy surrounding one of Chile's most famous public figures.

Neruda with Marxist President Salvador Allende, cerca 1972
Neruda with Marxist President Salvador Allende, cerca 1972

The court order is the latest in a string of recent attempts by Chile to confront its turbulent past. In 2009 the popular folk singer and outspoken Communist Victor Jara - tortured and killed by Pinochet forces - was finally laid to rest in a public funeral in Santiago. And as recently as last year, forensic evidence was discovered which dispelled the theory that Marxist President Salvador Allende was assassinated by the military, confirming instead that he took his own life. Now, in April, Neruda's body will be exhumed in an effort to establish whether his own left-wing political beliefs led to his death.

Neruda first started to become politicized after he was appointed as consul to Madrid, Spain, in 1934, replacing fellow poet and Chilean Gabriela Mistral in the role. He was deeply affected by his experience of the Spanish Civil War, and most notably, of the death of his close friend Federico García Lorca. Lorca was one of Spain's most recognised poets and a member of Neruda's inner social circle before being killed by Nationalist forces.

From this time onwards, Neruda openly and energetically supported the Republicans, marking a shift in his ideology that was reflected in his poetry as well. Up until this point Neruda was mostly famous for his love poetry, such as the much acclaimed 'Twenty Love Poems' and 'A Song of Despair.' However, after his sojourn in Barcelona and Madrid he published Spain in Our Hearts, a collection of poems detailing his experiences there. Later, more overtly political poems such as 'The United Fruit Company' or others found in his highly-charged history of Latin America, Canto General (1950), are clearly influenced by his leftist political stance.

La Chascona, house of Pablo Neruda, Santiago
La Chascona, house of Pablo Neruda, Santiago

This stance did not go unnoticed by authorities, and on more than one occasion Neruda suffered for it. In the late 1930s his political militancy cost him his job as consul in Madrid. He was elected as a Communist Party senator in 1945 and in 1948 he was forced into exile when President Gabriel González Videla outlawed communism. Now, recent speculation suggests that Neruda’s activism may have even cost him his life.

Neruda died in 1973, only twelve days after his close friend Salvador Allende committed suicide during a siege of La Moneda led by General Augusto Pinochet. In the days and weeks immediately after the coup d’état, political opponents and left wing supporters were rounded up and executed, tortured, or disappeared. Those lucky enough went into exile.
At the time, Neruda had been battling prostate cancer for three years, and as such his death did not come as a great surprise. However, a recent testimony by Neruda’s chauffeur, Manuel Araya, has reopened the debate, alleging that Pinochet may have been responsible. Araya claims that hours before his death, Neruda received a visit from a doctor that was not his regular physician, who injected Neruda with an unknown substance.

“Neruda was without a doubt a target for Pinochet,” says Eduardo Contreras, the lawyer coordinating the investigation at the request of the Communist Party. According to Contreras, the military regime “could not permit Neruda to lead a democratic resistance from Mexico.” Araya confirms that Neruda planned to “topple the dictator from abroad in less than three months.” Contreras cites the disappearance of the poet’s medical record and an incomplete list of workers employed at the time in the Santa Maria Clinic as further evidence of wrongdoing.

For the moment, the Pablo Neruda Foundation officially maintains that the poet died of his long-standing illness, with his passing perhaps accelerated by the tragic news of his friend Allende’s suicide. However, sufficient concern has been raised so that this April an investigative team will exhume the poet’s body from its sepulchre outside his favourite home in La Isla Negra to further determine the cause of death.

Should the inquiry conclude that there was no foul play in Neruda's case then perhaps, as with Allende, the nation will be able to put the matter behind them and try to move forward. Alternatively, if traces of poison are found, other, more deeply unsettling questions arise about how exactly justice should proceed. The case of Victor Jara illustrates the difficult nature of bringing criminals to justice after a lengthy period of time: imperfect evidence at best, fundamental discrepancies in witness testimony, and most disturbingly, the coordinated silence of the accused.

Perhaps the most vexing outcome is the possibility that no verdict will be delivered, since any traces of poison may have vanished in the intervening years. In such a scenario the controversy and uncertainty would linger, and Chile's struggle to reconcile with its tumultuous past would suffer another setback. For the sake of closure, hopefully Judge Carroza and his team will unearth the definitive truth about Neruda's death, however unpalatable that truth may be.

To learn more about Neruda’s life I recommend a trip to one (or all) of his homes.
La Chascona, Santiago, Tues – Sun 10am – 6pm, CP $4000 (US $8)
La Sebastiana, Valparaíso, Tues – Sun 10am – 6pm, CP $4000
Casa de La Isla Negra, La Isla Negra, Tues – Sun 10am – 6pm, CP $4000

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