WASHINGTON DC, April 14, 2013 – Last Monday the body of renowned Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was exhumed in Isla Negra, 70 miles from Santiago. The exhumation comes after a Chilean judge ordered an investigation last February to determine whether the Nobel Prize winning poet was poisoned.
Author or Canto General and 20 Love Poems and a Song of Despair, Pablo Neruda passed away on September 23, 1973 — just 12 days after Salvador Allende’s communist government was overthrown by a coup that placed Augusto Pinochet in power.
Recipient of the 1971 Nobel Prize in Literature, Neruda was beloved in his country and respected around the world. A Communist Party member and close personal friend of Allende, Neruda would have been a powerful voice against the Pinochet regime had he lived and made it out of Chile into exile.
Neruda’s official cause of death was recorded in 1973 as “extreme malnutrition” as a result of complications from prostate cancer, but many believe that Neruda was murdered by the Pinochet regime. In a 2011 interview in Proceso, a Mexican magazine, Manuel Araya Osorio, Neruda’s chauffer at the time of his death, claimed that his former employer had been poisoned. The interview caused international uproar and prompted an investigation by Chilean authorities.
Araya claims that Neruda died as a result of an injection to the stomach at Santa María hospital in Santiago. According to Araya, Neruda was not gravely ill, but was taken to Santa María hospital as a ruse to help him escape into exile shortly after the coup. Araya claims that less than 24 hours before Neruda was set to flee Chile, a doctor who’s identity remains a mystery injected poison into the poet’s stomach. Neruda died within hours.
From the beginning some of Neruda’s friends questioned the official cause of death from malnutrition, as Neruda allegedly weighed 220 lbs. at his death. Among the doubters is Mexico’s then- ambassador to Chile, Gonzalo Martinez Corbala. According to Martinez, who visited Neruda both before and after the coup, Neruda was not underweight and did not appear to suffer from malnutrition.
Reports from Chile also cite a 1974 interview of the poet’s widow, Matilde Urrutia, in Pueblo magazine, where she states that Neruda’s cancer was under control and his death was so unexpected that he did not even have time to leave a will. Similarly, an article in the newspaper La Nación quotes Rosa Núñez, a nurse who cared for Neruda for ten years before his death, saying that during a visit between the two women in 1975, Urrutia told her that she believed her husband had been murdered at the hospital. Urrutia died in 1985.
Poisoning, however, may not be easy to prove nearly 40 years after the poet’s death, according to forensic scientists. For one thing, even if Neruda was poisoned, there may be no detectable traces of the substance after so much time. Others worry about what the underground conditions in the coastal area of Isla Negra may have done to the remains.
The casket did seem to be in good shape after the exhumation Monday, according to Patricio Bustos, head of the Chilean medical legal service. After the exhumation, the casket was draped with the Chilean flag and transported to Santiago. Once Bustos’ team has preliminarily analyzed the remains, a decision will be made about whether to continue in-depth analysis in Chile or abroad. One source reports that some portion of the skeletal remains will be sent to the University of North Carolina for analysis.
Not everybody believes that Neruda was assassinated. Others claim that Neruda was “clearly ill” during the time shortly before his death, pointing out that he was arranging his work for publication posthumously. Moreover, the Pablo Neruda Foundation as well as the poet’s family have always stood behind the official version that Neruda died as a result of complications from prostate cancer.
The investigation into Neruda’s death is expected to take several months and may not be successful in clearing all doubts about whether he was assassinated.
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