Pablo Neruda died of poisoning just days after the 1973 coup that removed Salvador Allende from power, according to an international forensic report delivered to a top Chilean judge on Wednesday (Feb 15).
This finding contradicts the state’s long-held position that Chile’s most famous writer died of prostate cancer. Neruda’s nephew Rodolfo Reyes, a plaintiff in the case, shared the initial findings, while the full report will be made available to the public on March 7th.
Specifically, a team of forensic scientists from Denmark, Canada, and Chile found clostridium botulinum in Neruda’s remains, a neurotoxin that can cause Botulism. Many have theorized that Neruda, a close ally of Allende, was killed by Augusto Pinochet—the leader of the military coup—to prevent a political challenge from the beloved left-wing writer.
Neruda’s relatives have been working to bring light to the circumstances surrounding his death for years, with public pressure mounting after his personal driver in 2011 publicly recounted Neruda telling him a man had injected a foreign substance into his stomach just hours before his death.
The findings have wide-ranging implications in a country still grappling with a brutal military dictatorship that lasted for decades. In addition to his writing, Neruda was a senator in Chile’s national assembly and one of the most influential Marxists in Latin America. After the initial coup, Neruda had planned to go into exile, where he would have been an influential critic of the Pinochet regime, and perhaps even a political rival.
Neruda’s overshadowed political career
1927: Neruda begins his diplomatic career with an unglamorous posting at the consulate in Rangoon, the capital of the British colony of Burma. He bounces around in South and East Asia in the years after, including postings in Ceylon, New Delhi, Java, and Singapore, as well as a short stint in Argentina.
1934: Neruda is appointed to the Chilean consulate in Madrid, where he becomes immersed in a group of radical poets, including Federico García Lorca and Cesar Vallejo. He becomes increasingly political against the backdrop of the looming Spanish Civil War, and is removed from his post in 1936 after announcing his support for the Spanish Republic.
1938: Neruda is posted to a consulate in France, where he oversees the transport of 2,000 Spanish refugees fleeing fascism to Chile, a task he later calls “the noblest mission I have ever undertaken.”
1940: Neruda is appointed the Consul General in Mexico City, where he befriends Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros. A few months later, Siqueiros attempts to assassinate Soviet dissident Leon Trotsky on the orders of Joesph Stalin, before escaping authorities with the help of Neruda, who denies being part of the conspiracy.
1945: Neruda is elected to the Chilean Senate as a member of the Communist Party. A few years later he writes an open letter criticizing the right-wing president Gabriel Videla, who then expels him from the Senate and orders his arrest. He evades the authorities for a year, hiding in the homes of supporters, before leaving Chile by horseback, crossing the Andes Mountains into Peru.
1969: After returning to Chile under more favorable political conditions, Neruda campaigns for Salvador Allende in the 1970 presidential election. After Allende is elected, he appoints Neruda ambassador to France. There, Neruda falls ill with prostate cancer and is forced to return to Chile for treatment shortly before the 1973 coup.
Pinochet’s history of murdering political opponents
If Neruda was in fact murdered on the orders of the new Pinochet regime, he would be one of more than 40,000 political dissidents and activists who were tortured and murdered in the aftermath of the US-backed coup.
While the exact numbers are difficult to verify, Pinochet’s security forces specifically targeted writers and artists with socialists loyalties, including novelist Roberto Bolano and folk singer Victor Jara, in the months after he took power.
Supported by the Nixon administration and partially funded by the CIA, the right-wing government would continue a pattern of political repression and human rights abuses for almost two decades. Pinochet was eventually arrested in 1998 while visiting London and was eventually charged with crimes against humanity. He died in 2006 while the charges were still pending.
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