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Pablo Neruda in Stockholm (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images

Rewriting history?

Astrid Prange / csc
April 9, 2013

Was it murder? The Chilean Nobel Prize laureate Pablo Neruda is to be exhumed in an attempt to clear up the controversy over the cause of his death. The findings could affect the upcoming Chilean elections.


Will Chile have to rewrite its history? The exhumation of the poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, is once again forcing the South American country to deal with its recent past. Neruda was exhumed on Monday (08.04.2013), and it is hoped that the forensic examination of his mortal remains will finally clear up the controversy about how exactly he died.

The poet died on 23 September 1973, exactly 12 days after Augusto Pinochet seized power in Chile through a military coup. The official cause of death, which has generally been accepted until now, was cancer. But Neruda's former chauffeur Manuel Araya, who drove the poet to the hospital, disputes this. He is convinced that the Nobel Prize laureate and critic of the new regime was poisoned in hospital.

The exhumation, which was ordered by a judge, is intended to clear up the suspicions that have been smoldering for almost 40 years that Neruda was in fact murdered. According to the Forensic Medical Service in Santiago, the bones of the poet will be examined by an international team of forensic experts, anthropologists, biochemists and toxicologists.

Neruda's personal driver Manuel Araya (c) CLAUDIO SANTANA/AFP/Getty Images
Neruda's personal driver Manuel Araya is convinced the author was murderedImage: Getty Images/AFP

"We'll be looking for indications that will allow us to conclude whether he was suffering from an illness or not," explained the forensic anthropologist in charge of identity verification, Marisol Intriago Leiva, in an interview with DW. Analysis after so many years, she said, was "difficult, but not impossible."

Searching for the truth

In Chile, exhumations are part of overcoming the past. Some 30,000 people died or "disappeared" during the military dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet from 11 September 1973 to 11 March 1990. The generals deliberately made it difficult to identify opponents of the regime who had been tortured and murdered. There are still victims who have not been identified, meaning that their families' painful quest to find them goes on.

"The truth is in the human remains," says Alexandra Manescu, who looks after relatives of the dead and disappeared on behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross. She is the only German in the team of experts. "The dignity of the deceased must be preserved," is one of her tenets. She says that the families' pain is often just as great 20 or 30 years later as it was on the day their relative died, "even if you can't see it."

Ex-Chilean President Salvador Allende (c) Naul Ojeda/FSA/dpa/HO/
Ex-Chilean President Salvador Allende's remains were exhumed in 2011Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The Chilean judge Mario Carroza, who's responsible for the Neruda case, recently told the Argentine newspaper Diario de Mendoza that "what is crucial is to press on towards a truth that remains unknown to the majority of our society." Carroza also ordered the exhumation of the former left-wing president Salvador Allende, who was overthrown by Pinochet, two years ago. The forensic examination confirmed that Allende had committed suicide.

Doubts about the cause of death

In the last ten years, evidence has come to light which adds weight to the doubts about the official cause of Neruda's death. Neruda was treated in the same clinic in Santiago as the former Chilean president Eduardo Frei Montalva. Montalva, who governed Chile from 1964 to 1970, died in 1982 after a hernia operation. But forensic examinations in 2009 revealed that in fact the Christian Democrat politician had been poisoned with thalium and mustard gas.

This is why the radio journalist Mario Antonio Guzman from the Chilean broadcaster Radio Cooperativa believes it is not unthinkable that Neruda, too, could have been murdered. "I believe there's something in the allegations," he told DW, explaining that the persecution of leaders from the political or student milieu was a very deliberate procedure. "The oppression was a selective one," Guzman says.

A four ton, 16 meter (52 feet)wide heart of green and red apples lies in front of the presidential palace La Moneda to honor poet Pablo Neruda (AP Photo/Santiago Llanquin)
In Santiago, Neruda was honored on the 100th anniversary of his birthImage: AP

Political earthquake

At the Pablo Neruda Foundation in Santiago, however, people are skeptical. "The Foundation is convinced that Neruda died of prostate cancer," states their spokesperson Carlos Maldonado. If the forensic examination were to prove anything else, he prophesies that it would cause a political earthquake in Chile. "That would be a heavy blow for the country," says Maldonado. Of all the atrocities committed by the Pinochet dictatorship, he says, it would be one of the most drastic.

The timing of Neruda's exhumation is politically controversial. Chile is currently gearing up for elections: in November this year the people will be electing both a new parliament and a new leader. The journalist Guzman is sure that "if it transpires Neruda was one of the first victims of the dictatorship, it will affect the elections." Many members of the government would have to prepare to be questioned about their position during the military dictatorship.

So the bones of Chile's most famous poet still hold enormous political power. Perhaps the Nobel Prize winner will once again galvanize the Latin American spirit and rewrite the recent history of his homeland.

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