Skip to main content

Poet's story becomes a murder mystery: Chile exhumes Pablo Neruda's remains

By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
updated 4:39 PM EDT, Wed April 10, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Investigators exhume poet Pablo Neruda's remains
  • His death certificate says he died of prostate cancer
  • His former chauffeur alleges he was killed by an injection
  • The claim has riled some of Neruda's supporters

(CNN) -- Pablo Neruda wooed readers with his romantic poetry, but the latest lines in his story could be ripped from a murder mystery.

The Chilean poet's 1973 death certificate says prostate cancer killed him.

But his former chauffeur has another theory involving an unknown assassin, a lethal injection and the South American country's notorious military coup.

On Monday, authorities started putting that theory to the test, exhuming the poet's remains as part of a high-profile investigation that could take months to complete.

Manuel Araya, the chauffeur, said he's received threats for making the controversial claim, which has riled some of Neruda's supporters.

That won't stop him from speaking his mind, Araya told CNN Chile.

"I am not afraid of anyone," he said.

Chauffeur: 'They silenced him'

A view of the tomb of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in Isla Negra, some 120 km (75 miles) west of Santiago, on April 7, 2013.
A view of the tomb of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in Isla Negra, some 120 km (75 miles) west of Santiago, on April 7, 2013.

Neruda died on September 23, 1973, just 12 days after a right-wing military coup ousted socialist President Salvador Allende and brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power.

The poet, a Communist Party member, had criticized the coup and Pinochet.

Less than two weeks later, he was dead.

He had been planning to go into exile the next day -- and the timing of his death was no coincidence, according to Araya.

Neruda was a well known political and public figure, having served as a lawmaker and diplomat in addition to his literary career, which earned him a Nobel Prize in 1971.

"I believe that Pablo Neruda was murdered, because Pablo Neruda was a very relevant figure in history, as much in this country as in the world," Araya told CNN Chile. "He was going to go into exile on September 24 and they silenced him before then."

Thousands of people disappeared or died during Pinochet's rule, and many have accused his government of using death squads to wipe out political opponents.

Araya alleges that Neruda was poisoned in a clinic where he was undergoing treatment.

That claim and several other alleged discrepancies surrounding the poet's death drew the attention of Chile's Communist Party, which called for Neruda to be exhumed in 2011.

Evidence suggests that a third party was involved in Neruda's death, said Communist Party attorney Eduardo Contreras.

Chilean Judge Mario Carroza ordered the exhumation in February.

Nephew: 'This is a circus'

But not everyone shares the Communist Party's concerns.

After the exhumation request, the head of the Pablo Neruda Foundation -- founded by the poet's widow to promote and preserve his legacy -- said he didn't want authorities to dig up Neruda's remains.

"We are against an exhumation of his cadaver because it would seem to us a true act of desecration," Juan Agustin Figueroa told Chile's Radio Bio-Bio in 2011.

The organization has since adopted a more welcoming tone.

"In this year that marks four decades since the death of Pablo Neruda, we hope also that the investigation of Judge Carroza will help clarify the doubts that might exist regarding the poet's death," the foundation said in a statement last week.

Others aren't convinced.

"This is a circus that I do not want to be part of," Bernardo Reyes, Neruda's nephew and biographer, said last week.

Reyes said party officials never contacted him to discuss their desire to have Neruda's remains exhumed, and he told CNN Chile that he remains suspicious of their motives.

As debate surges, Reyes said he plans to update a biography of Neruda and publish photographs taken of the poet after his death, which show Neruda's physical state and the clothes he was wearing in his coffin.

"It seems that when someone wants to find the truth but ignores all the sides of the story, that is notable," he said.

Expert: Time 'erases evidence'

The investigation into Neruda's death follows another high-profile exhumation.

As part of a massive probe of 726 reported human rights violations during Pinochet's rule, Chilean authorities exhumed Allende's body in 2011.

Official accounts ruled the leftist leader's death a suicide, saying that he shot himself -- with a gun that was reportedly a gift from Fidel Castro -- as Pinochet's troops closed in on the presidential palace.

In July 2011, Chile's Legal Medical Service confirmed that suicide was the cause of Allende's death

For decades, Neruda has been buried alongside his wife, Matilde Urrutia, in Isla Negra, a coastal area in central Chile.

Excavation crews began work there on Sunday and completed the exhumation on Monday, CNN Chile reported.

Determining what really happened will be a difficult task, since so much time has passed since the poet's death, one pathologist told CNN Chile.

"Time is a destructive factor," said Dr. Luis Ravanal, an investigator for the office of Chile's government ombudsman. "It is an element that erases evidence."

Tissues will have decomposed, he said, and even if some sort of poison were used, there may no longer be any traces remaining.

"Science has enormous limitations in this case," he said.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
This looks like a ghost ship, but it's actually the site of a tense international standoff between the Philippines and China.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
The reported firing of artillery from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle, says CNN's military analyst Rick Francona.
updated 4:46 AM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
The young boy stops, stares, throws ammunition casings at the reporter's feet without a word.
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
A picture taken on June 28, 2014 shows a member of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) putting on protective gear at the isolation ward of the Donka Hospital in Conakry, where people infected with the Ebola virus are being treated. The World Health Organization has warned that Ebola could spread beyond hard-hit Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to neighbouring nations, but insisted that travel bans were not the answer.
The worst ebola outbreak in history spreads out of control in West Africa. CNN's Michael Holmes reports.
updated 8:48 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Sure, Fido is a brown Lab. But inside, he may also be a little green.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
ITN's Dan Rivers reports from the hospital where those injured by an attack in Gaza were being treated.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Photograph of an undisclosed location by Patrycja Makowska
Patrycja Makowska likes to give enigmatic names to the extraordinarily beautiful photographs she shoots of crumbling palaces.
updated 4:04 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
When the Costa Concordia and its salvage convoy finally depart Giglio, the residents will breathe a sigh of relief -- and shed a tear.
updated 2:08 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Flight attendants are wearing black ribbons to show solidarity with fallen colleagues in "a tribute to those who never made it home."
CNN joins the fight to end modern-day slavery by shining a spotlight on its horrors and highlighting success stories.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT