Chile Exhumes Poet's Body in Hopes of Solving Decades Old Murder Mystery

PHOTO:  Forensic specialists dig at the grave of Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda as they prepare for the exhumation of the remains in Isla Negra, Chile.Judiciary of Chile/AP Photo
Forensic specialists dig at the grave of Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda as they prepare for the exhumation of the remains in Isla Negra, Chile.

On Monday morning, Chilean authorities exhumed the body of Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda in a ceremony in Isla Negra that was closely watched by international observers and hundreds of journalists from all across the globe.

The disinterment of the poet's body in the Chilean Coast was ordered by a judge last February, and is set to answer a murder probe recently brought about by the country's Communist Party, which, based on the testimony of Neruda's driver and bodyguard, argues that the poet was assassinated by the government of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The official story says he died as a result of complications associated with prostate cancer.

"All the required tests will be done, and that way, through expert analysis, we will be able to determine the poet's cause of death," Mario Carroza, the Santiago Court of Appeals judge who ordered the procedure, said after the remains were sent to Santiago, Chile's capital, to undergo further testing. "Experts must work for as long as it is necessary so that the causes [his death] can be known."

The cause of Neruda's death has been a source of debate and a complex and fascinating subject for Chile a country that has not resolved the rifts opened by the 1973 coup d'état and by the ensuing years of dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. (In that sense, the case shares several themes with that of Federico García Lorca in Spain.)

Neruda, an ardent Marxist and a dedicated politician who was hailed by García Márquez as the best poet of the 20th century, died less than two weeks after Pinochet overthrew the leftist president Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973, in a violent takeover that was condoned by the CIA.

A couple of years before his death, Neruda, the winner of the 1971 Nobel Prize in Literature, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He succumbed to that disease when he was 69 years old on September 23, 1973, according to the death certificate from the Santa María Clinic, the hospital where he was being cared for. The official story claims that the poet was heart-struck by Pinochet's ascent to power and by the death of Salvador Allende, a personal friend who died during the coup, and that the events unfolding in Chile at the time were ultimately the cause of a fatal downturn of his already precarious condition.

The official version has been accepted by most of the public for the past 40 years. However, there are several points that don't add up, as Eduardo Contreras, the lawyer from the Communist Party that filed the case that led to the exhumation of Neruda's body, has recently argued. The biggest problem with the official version is the testimony of Manuel Araya, Neruda's driver and bodyguard, who has repeatedly said that Neruda did not die of natural causes, most recently in 2011 in a piece for the Mexican magazine Proceso.

"My thesis is that Neruda was given an injection on September 23 at 4 p.m., and that after that he reddened and died five hours later," Araya has said. "Until the last day of my life, I am going to say Neruda was murdered, that he wasn't ready to die. They murdered him and they murdered poetry."

The accounts of Chile's two existing newspaper accounts at the time seem to support Araya. Both La Tercera and El Mercurio, a newspaper that was close to the dictatorship, wrote on September 24 that Neruda died from a heart attack caused by an injection that his doctors gave him to supposedly ease his pain.

Neruda's body will be analyzed with x-rays and subjected to several tests in the hopes of finding whether one of Latin America's greatest poets was another of the thousands of victims of Pinochet's U.S. sponsored dictatorship, or whether the public exhumed his corpse to disprove another left-wing conspiracy theory.