An international team of scientists today released results of their tests on the bones of exhumed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Officially Neruda died of heart failure – brought on by advanced prostate cancer – on the 23rd September 1973 in Santiago’s Santa María Clinic, twelve days after the military coup that crushed Salvador Allende’s left-wing government. Rumours have long circulated, though, that Neruda’s death was in reality an assasination.
Neruda (whose real name was Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto) at the time of the coup was perhaps the most famous left-wing intellectual alive, having won the Nobel prize in 1971 (amidst controversy and opposition, given his overt communism, and history of support for Stalinism – a support which, by 71 he had renounced); he had also played an important role as Chilean Ambassador to France during Allende’s term in office (in which role he publicly denounced the American administration’s economic warfare against Allende’s government).
A poet who could draw huge crowds, who was left-wing, outspoken, and a friend and advisor to Allende surely presented a clear risk to the military coup, which by the 23rd of september had already executed hundreds of rank-and-file communist party members. Neruda, according to friends and relatives, had already started work in early Septebmer in forming an international support group for Allende, to be comprised of famous international writers like Arthur Miller, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
An official investigation into the circumstances of his death was launched in 2011, prompted in part by claims from Neruda’s driver Manuel Araya that on the day of the poet’s death – just hours before he was due to fly into exile in Mexico – Neruda had been given a suspicious injection at the Santa María Clinic.
The results from the forensic examination confirm that Neruda had metastized cancer, and no traces of poison were found, seeming to lay to rest the idea that he had been assasinated – to the point that the statement ‘no traces of poison were found’ has become translated across the web into titles like ‘Poet not poisoned under dictator’1 and ‘Poison ruled out as cause of Chilean Poet’s death’ 2 . While finding traces of poison would have clearly proved the assasination, the absence of traces of poison do not necessarily rule out foul play, or the involvement of Pinochet’s regime.
Back in April 2013 when the bones were sent for examination, Michele Catanzaro wrote an article for Nature magazine entitled ‘Can forensics establish whether Pablo Neruda was poisoned?. In the article Barry Logan, president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, who is not involved in the investigation pointed out :
“If experts find toxics that should not be there, then the result will be unequivocal,” he says. But some plant poisons are not detectable even in optimal forensic conditions, and traces of cyanide may be artefacts of decomposition, Logan says. “Finally,” he says, “the analysis may say whether a substance is present or not, but quantitative estimations are difficult in these conditions.” A poisoning that consisted of an overdose of a legal medication, such as morphine, would be difficult to detect.”
That Neruda was a sick man in September of 73 seems beyond doubt – he had, after all, returned to Chile from his Ambassadorial role in France because of ill health. The question remains as to how sick he was.
According to Adam Feinstein’s biography Pablo Neruda, the poet suffered a significant deterioration of health on the 18th of September, and was admitted to the Santiago clinic where he would later die. Matilde his widow described how tender he was with her on the night of September 22nd, “but when he woke up, he was no longer the same … He was delirious. His conscience and his heart were with his persecuted and tortured friends. And in the midst of his incoherent speech he would cry: ‘They’re shooting them. They’re shooting them.’ And then came the drowsiness and the delirium again until, on the morning of the Sunday, he fell into a coma.”
According to Araya, though, things happened very differently. Neruda was planning to go into exile in Mexico, a claim backed up later by Mexican officials. The problem was how to convince the military regime to let this high-profile figure out of the country; the plan, according to Araya (in interview with Al Jazeera), was to use ill-health as a pretext, hence his admission into the clinic. Supporting this view is the fact that on September 23rd Neruda apparently sent Matilde and Araya back to their home on Isla Negra to fetch things for their imminent departure. Why would they have gone had he been delirious and close to death?
Neruda’s plane to Mexico had originally been scheduled for the 22nd of September – but was then delayed to the 24th, further complicating the story; there’s a suggestion that, perhaps, Neruda’s secret love affair with Alicia Urrutia, Matilde’s niece, may have had something to do with this delay.
According to Araya in any case Neruda called them in agitation from the clinic on the 23rd, saying that he had just been injected by a doctor with something that burned and made him feel instantly ill. Araya returned to the clinic, and claims he was sent out with a prescription to find a pain-killer (if true this would be very strange, given that the clinic had its own pharmacy supplies); while out on the streets he was arrested by the military – he was, of course, a member of the communist party – and brought to Santiago’s infamous National Stadium. That night Neruda died.
Some other elements of the official story don’t seem to add up – in particular the confused and changing testimony of the physician Sergio Draper, who now claims that the injection which was administered to Neruda was given by a Dr Price – of whom there seems to be no trace in the records, and who conveniently disappeared after Neruda’s death. As part of the investigation Chilean authorities are now looking for Michael Townley, who it seems fits the description of this mysterious Dr Price. Townley is an American found guilty of involvement in various political assassinations in Chile / America and Italy in the 70s. Townley was convicted, in the United States, for the assassination of the Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier, and after serving 62 months for that crime is now involved in the US witness protection program.
The same clinic was the scene of another political assassination, that of former Chilean President Eduardo Frei, who was poisoned to death. The investigation into his death uncovered a number of attacks against regime opponents using chemical agents – though there is a suggestion that this practice only developed in the ’80s.
Whether Neruda was murdered or not will probably never come conclusively to light. Whether it casts any further light on the brutality of the Pinochet regime is debatable. It may be unclear as to whether the military thugs had the need, the expertise, or the foresight to assasinate Neruda, but it’s clear that no moral restraint would have impeded them from murdering the man that Gabriel Garcia Marquez described as the ‘greatest poet of the twentieth century’.