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Pablo Neruda's death is next to be investigated as Chile exhumes its past

June 6, 2011 | 10:42 am

This post has been corrected. See the note at bottom for details.

 Pablo Neruda 1971 getty images

Was Pablo Neruda poisoned?

A judge in Chile has opened an investigation into the death four decades ago of the Nobel Prize-winning poet in response to allegations by his former driver that Neruda was poisoned by agents acting for Gen. Augusto Pinochet. The general led the military junta and coup that toppled President Salvador Allende in 1973.

Neruda's estate has long maintained that the poet's death on Sept. 23, 1973 — just 12 days after the Sept. 11 coup — was due to prostate cancer. Yet Neruda's former driver and associate, Manuel Araya, has repeated claims recently that Neruda was assassinated for his activism as a Communist Party member and supporter of Allende, a democratically elected Marxist.

Days before his death, Neruda published an impassioned critique of the coup. Araya told reporters Neruda was probably poisoned to prevent him from traveling to Mexico, where the poet could position himself safely as a vocal opponent to the dictatorship.

Judge Mario Carroza ordered the investigation last week after a request filed by the Communist Party. The investigation could lead to the exhumation of Neruda's body from his grave at his beloved Isla Negra residence (links in Spanish).

The Neruda Foundation repeated its belief last week that Neruda died of cancer. Yet Communist Party members have pointed to press reports from the days after Neruda's death that said the 69-year-old went into "cardiac arrest" on Sept. 23, 1973, after a "calming substance" was injected into his stomach, contradicting the cancer story, the daily La Tercera reported.

Carroza has ordered press reports from the era to be located and examined (links in Spanish).

Neruda's case is the latest rattling of skeletons in Chile's history since the end of the dictatorship in 1990. Last month the government ordered Allende's body exhumed to determine once and for all whether he committed suicide on Sept. 11, 1973, or was assassinated. Read The Times' report on that investigation.

Carroza is also overseeing the Allende case and those of hundreds of other "disappeared" Chileans during the regime. Neruda, in fact, died in the same Santiago clinic in which a former Chilean president, Eduardo Frei, was allegedly poisoned in 1981, also by Pinochet agents.

Chile's current president, Sebastian Pinera, has supported inquiries into extrajudicial killings, disappearances and human-rights violations committed during the military dictatorship. He is the first conservative to be elected president in Chile since military rule ended.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda in 1971. Credit: Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

[For the Record, 1:50 p.m. June 6: An earlier version of this post had the Chilean dictator Pinochet's first name as Agustin. It is Augusto.]

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