A poet’s body was exhumed today as part of a quest for the truth that has spanned 40 years. Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971, died very suddenly as he planned to go into exile in 1973, just 12 days after the September 11, 1973 military coup that put strongman General Augusto Pinochet into power.
Pinochet overthrew democratically elected president, socialist Salvador Allende, and instituted a reign of terror against liberals, socialists, and communists. The regime gained worldwide notoriety for rounding up thousands of people in a public stadium, where at least 1,200 were killed. It’s difficult to calculate the precise number of the lives lost. Pinochet was never really successfully investigated or prosecuted, and at least 1,000 people are still among the missing.
Two years ago, after a silence of more than 35 years and after Pinochet himself had passed away at age 91 in 2006, Pablo Neruda’s bodyguard and driver Manuel Araya came forward with new accusations.
He said that Neruda died so suddenly not because of prostate cancer but because the doctors in the clinic where he was being treated injected him with poison. In addition to being a beloved poet, Neruda was also an outspoken communist — which made him an enemy of the Pinochet regime.
Eduardo Contreras, a lawyer who has pushed for an investigation, told The Guardian: “There was Allende, Victor Jara [the folk singer] and Pablo Neruda. Allende died on the day of the coup, Jara soon after, the only one left was Neruda. Why not eliminate the third symbol?”
Folksinger Victor Jara is one of the people killed at the Chilé Stadium within days of Pinochet seizing power. The stadium was renamed Estadio Víctor Jara in his memory in 2003.
After hearing Araya’s story, Contreras meticulously combed through the records of the time and agreed that Neruda wasn’t sick enough to have died of prostate cancer, a disease that can linger for years in older men before it kills.
Neruda could have been targeted because he actively campaigned for Allende. The president himself allegedly committed suicide when the Chilean presidential palace was surrounded by Pinochet’s troops. That suspicious death too has been questioned, although a Chilean court ultimately confirmed the finding of suicide in 2012 after exhuming Allende’s body.
Now it’s Neruda’s turn. It will take several months for a lab in Santiago to analyze the poet’s exhumed body and determine if he really died a natural death.
[grave photo courtesy Phill MV via Wikipedia Commons]