On Thursday, the Associated Press reports, Chile’s government released a statement confirming the authenticity of an Interior Ministry document, published by Spanish newspaper El Pais, acknowledging the possibility that Nobel-prize winning poet Pablo Neruda may have been killed after the 1973 coup. Officially, Neruda died of natural causes.
Neruda, a friend of Chile’s democratically-elected, socialist president Salvador Allende, was terminally ill with cancer when he heard the news of the September 11, 1973, coup led by Augusto Pinochet. He made plans to leave the country, but his health worsened, and he died 12 days later. Days before, he had published a critique of the coup; people said he had died of a broken heart.
(Allende committed suicide as Pinochet’s troops stormed the presidential palace with a rifle given to him by Fidel Castro.)
Pinochet’s military junta killed some 3,000 Chileans and imprisoned or tortured tens of thousands more. Years later, in 2004, Manuel Araya—Neruda’s driver, aide, and bodyguard—came forward to allege that the poet had been poisoned, although the Chilean government did not open a criminal investigation until 2011, well after Pinochet’s death (never having been convicted of a crime) in 2006. From Emily Witt’s piece for Harper’s earlier this year on the legacy of Neruda’s corpse:
Araya was a fourteen-year-old Communist activist from San Antonio when he first met Neruda. In November 1972, when Araya was twenty-five, Neruda hired him as his chauffeur, personal assistant, and bodyguard. Neruda was already ill with prostate cancer, phlebitis, and a host of other ailments, but Araya claimed that the poet was not yet on his deathbed. Now, speaking to the cameras, Araya described a mysterious occurrence in the clinic on the day before the poet’s death: a doctor entered Neruda’s room while he was sleeping and administered an injection in his stomach, which was followed by a rapid deterioration of the poet’s health. Araya had not been present at this event — he and Urrutia had gone back to Isla Negra to collect some books. Neruda called and told them to quickly return. Araya and Urrutia sped back to Santiago, where they found the poet florid and in pain, a sudden shift in his condition. “I said to him, ‘Don Pablo, what’s happened to you?’ And he told me, ‘A doctor gave me an injection.’ He said, ‘Manuel, I’m burning up inside.’”
“It is not paranoid to suppose that the junta contemplated the murder of Neruda,” Witt writes. “The razing of Chilean culture began with targeted murders, and the haste with which the junta dispatched cultural figures speaks to the threat they represented to the right wing.”
Neruda’s bones were exhumed in 2013, and after a six month investigation forensics experts confirmed the presence of metastatic cancer and the chemicals used to treat cancer at the time—but no toxins, no poison.
Still, many felt this was not conclusive. “Today we are going to request more samples. They [forensics experts] referred to chemical agents but there are no studies about biological agents” Chilean Communist Party lawyer Eduardo Contreras told the BBC. “A very important chapter has closed and was done very seriously, but this is not over.”
Now, the existence of this document, as reported by El Pais and confirmed by the Chilean government, would seem to indicate that an important new chapter is beginning. “However, the ministry cautioned that a panel of experts investigating the highly disputed topic had not reached a conclusion,” the AP reports. And yet: Clearly possible and highly probable.