Was Pablo Neruda murdered?

Chilean courts have decided to reexamine the death of the poet, who some suspect was killed by the Pinochet regime.

Isla Negra, Chile – It is said that there is no such thing as a perfect crime, and while that may or may not be true, the decision of the Chilean courts to investigate allegations that Nobel Literature Laureate Pablo Neruda was killed by the Pinochet dictatorship may be the latest example in Chile of how time is not always enough to cover up a murder.

Neruda, a member of Chile’s Communist Party who won the Nobel Prize in 1971, is among the most widely read Spanish-language poets. Millions of people the world over have been wooed by “Twenty Love Songs and a Song of Despair”. When he died just two weeks after the September 11, 1973, coup that overthrew Chilean President Salvador Allende, most people assumed it was from a broken heart that had accelerated the prostate cancer with which he had been diagnosed the previous year. Neruda was a close friend of Allende, and the military had raided his famous seaside home in Isla Negra, in those days about a two-hour drive from the capital Santiago. It was at Isla Negra that he completed his memoirs, which end with a bitter damnation of the coup and of General Augusto Pinochet.

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At the time, Manuel Araya was in his twenties and had been assigned by the Communist Party as Neruda’s private assistant and chauffeur. He told Al Jazeera that the day after the book was finished, he accompanied Neruda and his wife Matilda to the Santa Maria Clinic in Santiago.

Mexico’s then-ambassador to Chile later confirmed Araya’s claim that Neruda was planning to go to Mexico to raise opposition to the military regime from abroad, and that the Mexican government had sent a plane to fetch him and other high-profile soon-to-be-exiles. The problem was that the military junta would not readily give Neruda a safe conduct pass to leave the country. He was the most well known Chilean after the slain president, and was sure to make trouble if he left the country.

That’s why – according to Araya – a plan was devised to take Neruda to the hospital, so it could be argued that his health warranted a humanitarian safe conduct pass. The plan worked and the pass was issued. But Neruda was never to leave the clinic alive.

Almost 40 years have passed since his death. Yet when Manuel Araya tells the story, it is as though he were reliving it. He says he and Mrs Neruda had returned to Isla Negra to fetch the poet’s suitcase, when he received a phone call from Neruda. “He sounded very upset and told me that something had happened, that a doctor had come into his room while he was napping and injected him in the stomach with something that immediately made him feel ill. He suddenly felt hot, red and feverish, and asked us to rush back to the clinic.”

When Araya went, the secret police were waiting to arrest him. He was taken to Santiago’s National Stadium, where thousands of suspected supporters of the overthrown government were being held and tortured. While there, he heard the news that Neruda had died, just a few hours after the injection.

Araya said he was always convinced that Neruda had been murdered, but did not dare to say anything until 1990, when Chile returned to democracy. At that time no-one seemed to believe him. Mrs Neruda had died by then, and while her memoirs indicate that “Pablo was not ready to die yet”, there is nothing conclusive.

But when other equally “unbelievable” stories of high-profile murders by Chile’s already-infamous military regime turned out to be true, lawyer Eduardo Contreras began to take the story about Neruda more seriously. After all, at first, few believed Carmen Frei, the daughter of former President Eduardo Frei Sr, when she alleged that in 1982 her father had been poisoned to death in the same clinic where Neruda died. The former Christian Democrat president was very influential at home and abroad, and although he had initially approved of the military coup, in the days leading up to his death he had begun to openly call for organised resistance to the dictatorship.

“Neruda’s cancer was still at a very preliminary stage … he head in fact walked out of his house earlier and had received numerous social visits while planning his trip to Mexico.”

– Eduardo Contreras, lawyer

Two years ago, six people were arrested and charged with murdering the former president, after his body was exhumed and traces of poison found. The investigation also uncovered a secret network of chemical weapons developed by the Pinochet regime which were both widely used to eliminate “enemies” and sold to other dictatorships.

In the case of Neruda it may not be so easy to prove. According to Eduardo Contreras, after nearly 40 years it may be very difficult to find traces of chemicals that may have killed him, since his remains – buried facing the ocean at Isla Negra – are presumably very deteriorated by humidity. But Contreras told Al Jazeera that there were other indications of foul play, including missing documents and inconsistencies in the autopsy report.

“Neruda’s cancer was still at a very preliminary stage,” he said. “The hospital said he had died in a catatonic state, but he had in fact walked out of his house a few days earlier and had received numerous social visits while planning his trip to Mexico.”

Contreras also says people who worked at the Santa Maria Clinic knew that Neruda was murdered. When asked how he knew that, Contreras replied: “Because they told me. But they are still too afraid to come forward. I hope they can lose their fear while some of the culprits are still alive.”

Manuel Araya has written a book about Neruda’s last days, which is to be published shortly. The special prosecutor in the case may soon issue an exhumation order, despite fierce opposition from the Neruda Foundation, which runs museums in the poet’s three former homes, including at Isla Negra.

Although one should be very wary of conspiracy theories, regardless of the investigation’s outcome, it seems as though the Pinochet regime had at least the means and the motive to precipitate the death of one of the world’s most famous poets.

Follow Lucia Newman on Twitter: @lucianewman

Source: Al Jazeera