Rumors of Murder: Pinochet and the Death of Neruda

I can still remember my shock and sorrow the day I heard that Pablo Neruda, Chile’s greatest poet and one of the towering figures of 20th-century literature, had died. It was Sept. 23, 1973. Two weeks earlier, the Chilean military had staged a coup against President Salvador Allende and installed a dictatorship that would last 17 years.

Fearing for my life, like so many intellectuals and supporters of Allende, I was in hiding in a safe house in Santiago when the news reached me that, along with losing our land to fascism, we were losing the major wordsmith of that land when we most needed him.

Even if there were reasons to doubt every syllable that emanated from the junta as they tortured and murdered, persecuted and exiled Allende’s followers, it did not occur to me that they could have been stupid enough to assassinate Neruda himself.

I knew that he was bedridden and had been suffering from prostate cancer. It seemed natural that the horror of watching Chile’s democracy being destroyed and the grief at so many deaths of comrades from his Communist Party and other left-leaning organizations would have hastened his demise.

Over the years, along with most Chileans, I dismissed the rumors that an agent of the dictatorship had poisoned Neruda during his internment in the Clinica Santa Maria. Testimony of friends who were by his side during his last days and hours reinforced that skepticism. The writer’s widow, Matilde Urrutia, told me that in effect, cancer was the cause of death, though her husband’s overwhelming distress at the fate of our country had been the final blow.

I was wary of wild tales that could not be corroborated and did more harm than good. Faced with numerous real and undeniable atrocities, it was futile to postulate crimes that appeared to have no foundation and could be construed as propaganda.

Nevertheless, decades later, denunciations from Neruda’s former driver, Manuel Araya, mentioning a lethal injection administered to the poet hours before his death led a Chilean judge to exhume the author’s body and seek help from foreign forensic organizations to determine the true cause of death. And now 16 experts have announced that Neruda died of a bacterial infection rather than of cancer cachexia, as fraudulently stated on his death certificate.

Although they offered no evidence of foul play, their research has caused a certain amount of speculation. Contrasting with the inevitable circumspection of the forensic professionals, many Chileans — pundits, politicians, intellectuals, joined by one of Neruda’s nephews — take it as a given that an execution took place.

These renewed conjectures are bolstered by the circumstance that some years after Neruda’s death, former President Eduardo Frei Montalva died under suspicious circumstances in the same room at the very clinic where the great poet had expired.It took many years of investigations, but the Chilean courts ruled that Montalva was killed by a group of secret service agents. You could see why they murdered him: Montalva, after initially supporting the military takeover, had become the valiant leader of the opposition to Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Eliminating him was a way of getting rid of a figure who could rally and unify those who wanted democracy restored. A similar motive was behind the assassination in Washington, D.C., of Orlando Letelier, the popular and charismatic minister of foreign affairs in Allende’s government.

But murdering Neruda still seems to make little sense. Why would Pinochet’s minions risk killing a poet who was already dying, a Nobel Prize winner revered by Chileans of all stripes and allegiances? Wasn’t he sick and weak, about to go into exile in Mexico, where he would have soon wasted away anyway?

Whatever the truth about his death, its effect was stunning. Neruda’s funeral on Sept. 26, 1973, became the first act of public defiance against Chile’s new rulers.

Braving the soldiers in the streets and the fear in their hearts, thousands of patriots accompanied Neruda’s coffin to the Cementerio General, saying goodbye to the poet who had told their story and the story of a Latin America in search of liberation. How could they fail to accompany on its final journey the body of the poet who had celebrated the human body in all its sensual desires and deepest despair?

These were the people who had learned from his verses how to shape their dreams and dream their love, and forlorn and enraged, they chanted that their bard was alive inside them. They promised that Allende, our dead president, would not be forgotten; they vowed that Chile would not succumb to tyranny.

The significance of the event did not lie only in the symbolism of so many men and women and even children endangering themselves to express their need for liberty. That funeral was also a blueprint for how the resistance would eventually defeat Pinochet in the arduous years to come: by taking over every tiny and large space available, by pushing back the limits of what was permissible, by stating, in the face of bayonets and bullets, that silence would not prevail.

In his most famous lines from “Canto General,” Neruda spoke to the anonymous dead of Latin America, writing, “Sube a nacer conmigo, hermano,” asking those forgotten and desecrated by history to be born again. “Rise up and be born with me, my brother.”

The renewed conversation around Neruda’s death allows us to remember him once more, see him yet again as a prophet in the battle against darkness and doom and oblivion. Just as yesterday when he was alive, our Pablo now continues, from beyond death, to send humanity a message of hope, encouraging the struggle for justice and freedom in our dire times.

It may take a long time, but the crimes of the past will not be suppressed. It may take a long time, Neruda’s memory is telling us, but there will, finally, be a reckoning. It may take a long time, Neruda’s poetry is telling us, but the victims of history will surely find a way to be born again.


A version of this op-ed originally appeared in the New York Times.