Was Pablo Neruda Murdered by the Pinochet Regime?

Pablo Neruda
Pablo Neruda

Photo by STF/AFP/Getty Images

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In September 1973, 12 days after Augusto Pinochet overthrew the Chilean government in a military coup, poet Pablo Neruda died in a hospital, ostensibly of cancer. Now, 40 years later, a Chilean court is investigating the possibility that Neruda might have been murdered by government agents hoping to silence his dissident voice.

Although Bart Simpson is familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda, you may not be. Briefly, Neruda was a prolific poet and ardent communist whose works addressed themes of love and liberation. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, right around the time he became close to Salvador Allende, Chile’s socialist president. Allende was deposed (and possibly killed) by Pinochet on Sept. 11, 1973. Neruda was shocked and saddened by the coup, and, according to the Independent, was planning to move to Mexico, where he could write against Pinochet in relative safety. He never got the chance. Here’s the Independent:

The enquiries started after Neruda’s former driver, Manuel Araya, alleged the poet was poisoned by agents working for Pinochet. He said an unscheduled injection was given to the poet just hours before his death and Neruda rang him from the hospital saying he was feeling sick afterwards. The Chilean Communist Party said he had not displayed symptoms associated with the advanced stage of the cancer.

A doctor from the hospital where Neruda died claims that the injection may have been ordered by a blond, blue-eyed man calling himself “Dr. Price,” who vanished from the hospital soon after Neruda died, never to be seen again. Price’s description matches that of Michael Townley, a CIA agent who pulled double duty as an assassin for Pinochet’s secret police.

Neruda’s body was exhumed in April and is currently being tested for traces of poison. On Saturday a judge issued an order for the Chilean police to track down the mysterious Dr. Price. (If Price and Townley are the same person, then the police have their work cut out for them: Townley has been in the federal witness protection program for 30 years.)

This is a hell of a story, if true. But, at this point, there is no real reason to assume that it’s true. Forty-year-old memories and suspicious resemblances might count as smoking-gun evidence in the movies, but they ought to be treated with extreme caution in real life. And, yes, the Pinochet regime killed a lot of dissidents. But multiple sources have said that Pinochet’s agents didn’t start killing people with poison until the 1980s. One of these sources is Neruda’s own nephew, Bernardo Reyes, who told CNN that the investigation into his uncle’s death “is a circus in which I want no part.”

At the beginning of May, Nature reported that the first round of tests on Neruda’s exhumed corpse found no poison but did confirm that the poet had advanced prostate cancer. The tests are continuing, and poison may still be found—but until it is, we should refrain from jumping to conclusions about Neruda’s death.