‘Nobel poet poisoned?’ New probe launched

Pablo Neruda: ‘Love is so short, forgetting is so long,’ the great poet once wrote.

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is beloved in his own country and abroad. Yet many suspect that he was poisoned by his own government. Should Chile pursue the truth or let sleeping dogs lie?

On 23 September 1973, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, Pablo Neruda, died. Thousands of grieving Chileans poured into the streets to mourn the loss of their national hero. Just two years earlier, he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for poetry that ‘with the action of an elemental force brings alive a continent's destiny and dreams.’

But dark, persistent rumours surrounding Neruda’s death divide Chile to this day. For decades it was accepted that Neruda died from cancer. There are those who are adamant, however, that he was murdered; poisoned by powerful enemies. This week, Chile announced a fresh investigation to get to the bottom of the case.

Neruda died just 12 days after Chile was plunged into chaos. On 11 September 1973, Chileans woke to dramatic, almost incredible scenes. Chilean warplanes bombed the presidential palace of the democratically-elected socialist president Salvador Allende. A US-backed coup was unfurling, one which ushered in the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Some Chileans have long been sceptical of the official cause of Neruda’s death. As a staunch loyalist and friend of Allende’s, Neruda was a vocal opponent of Pinochet and a thorn in the regime’s side. He had been offered safe haven in Mexico, from where he planned to galvanise world opinion against the dictator.

A new round of forensic tests on Neruda’s remains should help establish the real cause of death. But it is not the first time Neruda’s peace has been disturbed.

In 2011, Neruda's chauffeur publicly declared that he had been murdered in hospital by a mysterious doctor, who injected poison into his stomach. But when Neruda’s body was exhumed in 2013, they found no evidence to support the claims.

The legacy of Pinochet’s dictatorship casts a long shadow over modern Chile. Under his regime, 3,000 political opponents were killed, and many more were tortured. For thousands of Chileans, the revolutionary words of Neruda stayed in their hearts and minds as Chile eventually made a peaceful transition to democracy.

Memories of a nation

This story is not just about an individual’s death, some say, but a nation desperately confronting its past. A devastating military dictatorship almost tore a country apart, and the public needs to know for certain the truth so that justice can be done. Only then can Chile move on.

But what good, others ask, does it do to keep probing old wounds? Chileans remain divided over Pinochet's legacy and stirring up the past does nothing to heal its scars. This is nothing more than a ‘whodunit’ story perpetuated by sensationalist journalists. After all, Pinochet is dead, the past is the past, and Neruda should be left in peace.

You Decide

  1. Should countries always seek the truth about the past, even if it risks creating serious tensions in society?
  2. Neruda remarked to soldiers searching his house: ‘There’s only one thing of danger for you here — poetry.’ What did he mean?

Activities

  1. Do some further research into Neruda’s life and work. Write a poem based on an aspect you find particularly interesting.
  2. Produce a factfile on Chile, with information about its history, culture and economy.

Some People Say...

“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.”

Pablo Neruda

What do you think?

Q & A

I’ve never heard of Neruda.
Now is your chance to delve into Neruda's fascinating life and work and find out what the fuss is about. Chilean teens — and adults — routinely give his ‘Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair’ to their sweethearts, and part of his life was depicted in the film Il Postino, which was nominated for five Academy Awards. His political verses have been repeated at some of the most spectacular recent revolutions, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Arab Spring.
What happened to Pinochet?
Pinochet held a referendum in 1988, convinced he would remain in power. Yet Chileans voted instead to restore democracy, by 56% to 43%. The general stayed on as army commander but he was eventually arrested in London in 1998. He died in 2006 having never been convicted.

Word Watch

Salvador Allende
Allende committed suicide as Pinochet’s men stormed the presidential palace.
US
US President Richard Nixon was worried that more countries would follow Chile’s example and elect socialists. He quietly ordered the CIA to 'make the economy scream.’
Augusto Pinochet.
Pinochet died in 2006 under house arrest. He faced over three hundred criminal charges for human rights abuses, tax evasion, and embezzlement. Yet some see Pinochet as a hero who turned Chile into the fastest-growing economy in Latin America by applying free-market policies. Today, Chile is one of the continent’s most prosperous nations.
Modern Chile
The current president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, was tortured under Pinochet’s regime, as was her father, a member of Allende’s government.
Opponents
The Chilean folk singer Victor Jara was another cultural figure murdered by the regime. His hands were broken and his body dumped in the streets. His lyrics of love and social justice made him a powerful symbol of human rights during the regime. Political opponents were also hunted down in the US and Argentina.

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