Pinochet Killed Democracy, But Not Poetry in Chile

Image of a pen and paper.

Image by Álvaro Serrano.

This year’s September 23 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Chilean poet  Pablo Neruda, whom Gabriel Garcia Marquez called “the greatest poet of the 20th century — in any language.” Both Neruda’s family and Manuel Araya, his personal assistant and driver, confirmed last February that Neruda was assassinated on orders of General Augusto Pinochet and not, as was commonly believed, that he died either of leukemia or prostate cancer.

Forensic investigators from four countries who analyzed Neruda’s body to determine if there was any evidence of foul play found Clostridium botulinum, a potent neurotoxin that paralyzes muscles and the nervous system, causing eventual death. Experts at McMaster University and the University of Copenhagen discarded the possibility that the toxin entered the body postmortem, suggesting that the probable cause of death was intentional poisoning. “If I have to leave, I’ll go calmly because my truth has finally come to light,” declared Mr. Anaya to Prensa Latina, the Cuban press agency.

Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto was born in the town of Parral in Chile, on July 12, 1904. His mother died within a month of his birth. Two years later the family moved to Temuco, a town farther south, where he became friends with Gabriela Mistral, then principal of the Temuco Girls School and years later a Nobel Laureate. Mistral provided Neruda with ample reading material and was an important influence in Neruda’s development as a poet.

A precocious child, Neruda started writing poetry at 10, contributed articles to the daily “La Mañana” when he was 13, and at 16 changed his name to Pablo Neruda, in memory of the Czech writer Jan Neruda. He published Crepusculario, his first book of poems, at the age of 17. 

I started reading him when I was a medical student in the 1960s, and haven’t stopped. Two of his books — “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair” (written when he was only 20) and “The Captain’s Verses” — are intertwined with my first (mostly failed), adolescent love adventures. Like millions across the world, once I read Neruda he became part of my life.

Eager to see the world, when he was 23 he took advantage of an opportunity to be named Chile’s honorary consul in Burma, Ceylon, Java, and Singapore. During his years in Asia he lived in poverty, since the Chilean government only paid for his most basic expenses. Poverty and loneliness had a lasting mark in his life. He later represented Chile in Argentina, and in the Spanish cities of Barcelona and Madrid.

Neruda had a strong distaste for administrative tasks. In his book “Adiós, Poeta” (“Good bye, Poet”) the writer Jorge Edwards writes that when Neruda was named to a post in the Chilean Consulate in Madrid, Tulio Maquieira, who was then the Consul told him, “Listen Neruda, you are a poet, so should go and write poetry. You don’t need to come to the Consulate. Just give us an address where we can send you your monthly salary. That’s all.”

The Spanish Civil War, where his friend, the great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, was murdered, had a profound influence on his writing and his political activities. He joined the Republican camp, first in Spain and then in France. In 1939, he was appointed special Chilean consul in Paris where he was charged with coordinating the emigration to Chile   of as many as 2,000 Spanish Republicans who had escaped to France. In 1943 he returned to Chile and joined the protests against President Gabriel Gonzalez Videla’s repressive policies against striking miners. In 1945 he became senator and joined the Communist Party. However, the government soon expelled him.

He went into hiding in 1948, shortly after delivering in the Senate one of the most passionate speeches on Chile’s political history, where he read aloud there the names of 628 people detained at the Pisagua concentration camp without prior interrogation or formal charges. That speech became known as “Yo Acuso” (I accuse) after French novelist Emile Zola’s 1898 denunciation of the French government’s unlawful jailing of Alfred Dreyfus. In 1948 he was forced to escape from Chile, crossing the Andes Mountains to Argentina on horseback with the manuscript of one of his greatest poems, “Canto General” (General Song) in his saddlebag. A year later, he went to Europe.

Neruda said, “I have never thought of my life as divided between poetry and politics.” It is not then surprising that his greatest poetic achievements were grounded on his political beliefs. In his “Canto General published in 1950, Neruda celebrates the richness and beauty of Latin America, and its people’s struggle for peace and social justice. His poem “Alturas of Machu Picchu” (Heights of Machu Picchu,) is a celebration of pre-Columbian civilizations.

He lived in Europe for three years and returned to Chile in 1952. He visited the United States in 1966 and in 1971 was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, which he received after being stricken with prostate cancer. When Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile in 1970, he appointed Neruda as Chile’s ambassador to France, where he lived from 1970 to 1972. He then returned to Chile, but in September of that year, General Augusto Pinochet, with help from the CIA, overthrew Allende’s government.

Shattered by Allende’ suicide, Neruda died only 12 days after Pinochet’s coup. Shortly before his death, as he lay in bed, his house was ransacked by a heavily armed military unit. When he saw the unit’s commander, Neruda, who could hardly speak, told him, “Captain, there is only one dangerous thing for you in this house.” Alarmed, the officer asked him, while quickly grabbing his pistol “What is it?” Neruda replied, — “Poetry.”

Neruda’s death seems to have been presaged in his poem “Poetry” translated by Alastair Reid, which last verses read,

And I, tiny being,

drunk with the great starry


likeness, image of


felt myself a pure part

of the abyss.

I wheeled with the stars.

My heart broke loose with the wind.

Although officially Neruda died of leukemia, now we know that he was killed on orders of General Augusto Pinochet, in a futile attempt to kill his poetry. Pinochet, however, only killed Neruda the man. His poetry survives him, and he is one of the most widely read poets of the 20th  century.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”