The grave of Pablo Neruda, overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Isla Negra, Chile. After nearly 40 years, it is about to give up its biggest secret: How did the great poet, a Nobel-winning national icon before his death and a legend thereafter, die?
Preparatory work for the exhumation of the body of Pablo Neruda began on Sunday, so that his remains can be removed on Monday from his grave on Isla Negra to be analyzed, to determine whether he died of cancer or was assassinated by the Pinochet dictatorship on September 23, 1973, just days after the military coup.
The earth-moving operation took place today on Isla Negra, about 100 kilometres west of Santiago, where the Nobel literary prizewinner lies buried alongside his third wife, Matilde Urrutia. Their graves overlook the Pacific Ocean, in the garden of their home, now a museum which receives thousands of visitors every year, and which closed its doors on Sunday afternoon.
For the exhumation, a tent will be installed and special protective gear will be worn in case of any toxic substances. The task will be completed by a multidisciplinary team of Chilean and foreign forensic scientists: five from the Chilean state medico-legal service, four experts from the University of Chile, and four international experts. Among them will be the US toxicologist Ruth Winecker and three Spaniards: toxicologist Guillermo Repetto, surgeon Aurelio Luna, and forensic doctor Francisco Etxeberría, who also participated in the 2011 exhumation of Chilean president Salvador Allende.
There will also be three international observers, and the president of the Chilean Communist Party, Guillermo Teillier; the party attorney, Eduardo Contreras; a nephew of the poet, Rodolfo Reyes; and Neruda’s former chauffeur, Manuel Araya. It was Araya who, in 2011, suggested the possibility during an interview that Neruda could have been assassinated. He took this to the Communist Party, to which Neruda belonged, in order to present in May of that year a lawsuit that touched off the judicial investigation.
Judge Mario Carroza, of the Court of Appeals in Santiago, decided in February that it would be necessary to disinter the remains of the author of “Twenty Poems of Love and One Song of Despair”, to clarify the causes of his death. According to the official version, Neruda died in a private clinic in Santiago on September 23, 1973, twelve days after the coup d’état by Augusto Pinochet (who ruled from 1973 to 1990), due to cancer of the prostate gland, which he had suffered from for years.
However, Manuel Araya maintains that Neruda’s death was due to an injection he received that same day, on the eve of a trip that would have taken him to exile in Mexico, where he could have become a thorn in the side of the military government. Neruda “was a very dangerous figure for Pinochet, due to the international prestige he had,” said Araya, who now lives in the coastal town of San Antonio, a few kilometres from Isla Negra. The chauffeur asserts that the poet had accepted the refuge that Mexico offered after the coup, and that he was ready to travel there in order to actively involve himself in the political fight against the Pinochet régime.
Manuel Araya has criticized the forensic team chosen to participate in the exhumation, although others involved in the process discounted his observations. Araya contends that Judge Carroza “vetoed the team of experts proposed by the family of Pablo Neruda, represented by his nephew Rodolfo Reyes, and by the Communist Party, represented by Eduardo Contreras.”
However, Contreras indicated that he does not agree with this assertion, and that the Party will rely on the expert Gloria Ramírez during the exhumation, and on the neurologist and psychiatrist Luis Fornazzari, and the geneticist, Cristián Orrego during the examinations to come. The lawyer did, however, agree with Manuel Araya that the judge should have accepted, as per the Neruda family’s request, the presence of medical examiner Luis Ravanal, who became famous in 2008 for publishing an article on the 1973 death of Salvador Allende.
Before Neruda, other cadavers from the recent history of Chile have also been exhumed in the last two years to clarify the causes of their deaths.
In the case of Allende, in 2011, it was established that the president did indeed shoot himself during the bombing of the Moneda palace by the putschists. On the other hand, in the case of his former minister José Tohá, in 2012, analyses revealed that he did not commit suicide, but that he died at the hands of a third party, by strangling or hanging, when he was interned in the Military Hospital in Santiago in 1974.
But the situation that most resembles that of Neruda is that of former president Eduardo Frei Montalva, who died in 1982 in the same clinic, in Santa María, when he led an incipient opposition to the dictatorship. Over the years his death was attributed to septicemia, but in 2009 a judicial investigation established that he had been fatally poisoned.
In his official statement on the Neruda case, Judge Carroza mentioned that none of the three hospital centres where Neruda was treated during 1973 had kept their medical records, even though the law required them to be kept for 40 years. Also, “now there are doubts as to the real identity of the doctor who injected a drug (dipirona) into the poet, supposedly to relieve his pain that Sunday,” according to the lawyer, Eduardo Contreras.
“There are many contradictions in what happened in the clinic with Neruda so, at the least, we have legitimate doubts that he died of cancer,” the lawyer said. Initially, he explained, “it was thought that it was a doctor named Sergio Draper, but there are witnesses who say that Draper was not the one who injected him.
“It’s very strange that Draper started working at the clinic just three days before Neruda’s death. He has been linked for many years to the Military Hospital. He is also mentioned in the death of ex-president Frei in 1982, in the same clinic — due to a deliberate poisoning, as has been legally established,” said Contreras.
All these doubts will begin to resolve themselves on Monday, tomorrow, when, upon exhumation, the remains of Neruda will be transferred to a special laboratory at the headquarters of the Medico-Legal Service in Santiago, under constant surveillance by guards and cameras.
“There will be an anthropological and medical analysis. A biological profile will be constructed, and the condition of the remains will be examined. Samples will be taken for toxicological examinations,” said the director of the service, Patricio Bustos. They will look for signs of bone metastasis and possible toxic substances which will help to unravel a mystery which, as Eduardo Contreras says, could turn into a “blow to international memory”.
Determining the cause of death will be “a difficult task”, says Patricio Bustos, director of the Medico-Legal Service. “The samples have deteriorated over the years, but we are used to working in adverse conditions,” says Bustos, who underscored the constant disposition of the service to “search for the truth”.
There has long been a hinky odor surrounding Neruda’s death. The timing alone is suspicious: Less than two weeks after Pinochet’s coup, a famous Communist critic of the general is suddenly dead? How fortuitous…for Pinochet.
Hinkier still is the fact that none of the hospitals that supposedly treated Neruda for prostate cancer have kept their records, even though Chilean law requires them to do just that, for at least 40 years. In the case of such a famous patient, one would imagine, the records would be kept indefinitely. Yet none exist. Even though not quite 40 years have passed since his death. Surely that’s illegal!
And the hinkitude is especially strong with the (again fortuitous, for Pinochet) death of Eduardo Frei, the former president who preceded Salvador Allende, who was overthrown and killed (I will never believe he truly committed suicide) in the coup. Just as Frei was about to spearhead a major opposition push against Pinochet in 1982, poof! Dead. At the hands of the same doctor who supposedly injected Neruda with a painkiller for his prostate cancer. A doctor who happens to be associated with a clandestine prison and torture centre of the Pinochet dictatorship, at that. And the cause of Frei’s death is known to be deliberate poisoning. Verdict: Murder.
Hinkiest of all is the fact that Neruda’s own chauffeur, Manuel Araya, steadfastly refuses to accept the official version of his employer’s death. Araya would have been aware of Neruda’s state of health, and probably much more so than most. He does not think the poet was terminally ill at the time, and seeing as Neruda was about to go into exile in Mexico, that means he would have been well enough to travel. In short, hardly at death’s door!
So, tomorrow, we will see whether Araya’s assertions (which I’ve blogged on here before) will be borne out by the experts. In the meantime, I’ll just leave you with a few lines of Neruda’s that I have always found to be poignant…and telling:
Pablo Neruda does not sing
The general’s verses.
He is too much of a poet
To see his people die
And survive it.
I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if that refusal was what ultimately cost Neruda his life.