On September 23, 1973, just 12 days after the bloody military coup in Chile, one of the world’s most famous poets, Pablo Neruda, died in the Santa María medical clinic in Santiago, where he was being treated for prostate cancer. At the time of his death at age 69, a private plane sent by the Mexican government was waiting to transport the Nobel laureate into the safety of exile. Given his long history as a leading member of Chile’s Communist Party, and his close ties to the deposed government of Salvador Allende, Neruda had many reasons to flee Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s forces.
Neruda’s doctors, according to an obituary in The New York Times, attributed his death to “heart collapse.” An official death certificate listed the cause as “cancer cachexia”—a withering condition associated with severe weight loss.
Last week, however, an international team of forensic scientists submitted a special report to a Chilean judge suggesting that Neruda may have died from poisoning, not cancer. Their evaluation of the pulp in one of his molars confirmed the presence of Clostridium botulinum, some strains of which can cause paralysis of the nervous system. The team determined that the bacteria had entered Neruda’s body before his death and burial.
The long-awaited report has still not been made public by Judge Paola Plaza, who is overseeing the case; a summary reviewed by The New York Times makes it clear that the findings are far from definitive. But that has not stopped members of the Neruda family from characterizing it as a smoking gun. “We’ve found the bullet that killed Neruda, and it was in his body. Who fired it? We’ll find out soon, but there’s no doubt Neruda was killed through the direct intervention of a third party,” Neruda’s nephew, Rodolfo Reyes, said in an interview with the Spanish news service, EFE.
“Neruda’s body has spoken to science,” Reyes told The Nation in a separate e-mail. “Now we are waiting for the [judge] who is in charge of this case to conduct an extensive review of these various tests that have been carried out during these 12 years, and, we hope, to issue a resolution.” Judge Plaza has indicated she may issue a ruling in March on whether Neruda’s death should be investigated as a crime.
The circumstances of Neruda’s death have been under judicial review since 2011, when his former chauffeur Manuel Araya first claimed that the poet had received an unexplained injection in his stomach that rapidly led to a deterioration of his condition and his death only hours later. Neruda’s family and the Chilean Communist Party took the case to court, and in 2013 a judge ordered that Neruda’s remains be exhumed for forensic evaluation. Two years later, an initial scientific assessment identified the bacteria in his molar but could not determine when and how it had gotten there. In 2017, a panel of 16 scientists unanimously rejected the official cause of death, stating they were “100 percent convinced” that Neruda had not died of cancer cachexia, as the death certificate stated.
At the same time, a separate inquiry was taking place into the death of another prominent civilian opponent of the Pinochet regime, former Christian Democrat president Eduardo Frei. Frei died unexpectedly in 1982 after routine hernia surgery at the same clinic where Neruda had been treated. In January 2019, after years of judicial inquiry, a doctor associated with the Chilean secret police, Frei’s driver, and four others were convicted and sentenced to prison for killing Frei with mustard gas during his hospitalization. Then-President Sebastián Piñera made it clear that the Chilean government now officially agreed that Frei had been murdered.
The renewed scrutiny of Neruda’s case also comes as the 50th anniversary of the US-backed military coup, and the poet’s subsequent death, approaches in September. The current Chilean government is headed by progressive President Gabriel Boric, who was elected through a coalition of Socialist and Communist parties similar to the historic election of Salvador Allende in 1970. Boric is already preparing a series of commemorative events focusing on three themes: memory, human rights, and the future of democracy. Those events will likely include tributes to Neruda, who remains one of the country’s most famous cultural figures, despite recent criticism of his long history of misogyny—and his confession in posthumously published memoirs of sexually assaulting a maid in his hotel room in Sri Lanka, where he was posted as a young diplomat in 1930.
Born Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, Neruda became a world-renowned poet at age 19 with the publication of Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, which has since been translated into 35 languages. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971. The Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez applauded Neruda as “the greatest poet of the 20th century.”
While his romantic poetry received worldwide acclaim, Neruda’s poetic rendering of fascism and repression also transfixed his global readership. “Preguntaréis por qué su poesía no nos habla del sueño, de las hojas, de los grandes volcanes de su país natal? (“And you will ask: why doesn’t his poetry speak of dreams, and leaves, and the great volcanoes of his native land?”) he wrote in “Explico Algunas Cosas,” (I Explain A Few Things), a 1936 poem denouncing Gen. Francisco Franco’s ongoing human rights atrocities during the Spanish Civil War. And then Neruda answered that question: “Venid a ver la sangre por las calles, venid a ver la sangre por las calles, venid a ver la sangre por las calles!” (“Come and see the blood in the streets, come and see the blood in the streets, come and see the blood in the streets!”)
Had he lived to write about the atrocities of the Pinochet regime, Neruda could have written the same words about his native land. The 50th anniversary of his death, by murder or not, will inevitably enhance global reflections on the infamous coup. It will also not be forgotten that his funeral service, attended by almost 2000 mourners who came out of hiding to chant “with Neruda, we bury Salvador Allende,” will go down in history as the very first public protest against Pinochet’s nascent military dictatorship.