REPORTING FROM SANTIAGO, CHILE, AND BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- A Chilean judge is expected to rule early next month on a request that the body of Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda be exhumed to test recent allegations that he was poisoned by government forces in 1973, days after they overthrew President Salvador Allende.
According to the official version, Neruda died of prostate cancer in a hospital in Santiago on Sept. 23, 12 days after Allende was toppled in a coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Friends say Neruda’s condition days before his death was excellent but that he deteriorated rapidly — and suspiciously — after the coup.
The Communist Party of Chile has always had suspicions that Neruda, a close friend of Allende, might have been poisoned, but that theory was given more credence in June, when the poet’s chauffeur went public for the first time with similar suspicions.
"The only way to clear it up is with an exhumation," Eduardo Contreras, a lawyer for the Communist Party who made the official request, told The Times on Saturday.
Contreras says medical records show that at his death Neruda was in a vegetative state, which given his condition days before his death "should have taken months to transpire." He said former Mexican Ambassador to Chile Gonzalo Martinez said Neruda was "walking and talking normally" until shortly before he died.
The chauffeur, Manuel Araya, said that the day before Neruda died, he told Araya that someone appearing to be a doctor had injected him with an unknown substance while he was sleeping. Contreras said Saturday that he believes the injection led to the poet’s death, not metastatic cancer.
The government’s possible motive for assassinating Neruda? Pinochet allegedly was fearful that Neruda would leave Chile for exile and become a forceful external critic of him and the coup.
After five months of testimony, Judge Mario Carroza agreed that sufficient doubts existed over the cause of Neruda’s death to warrant an exhumation to see if traces of poison exist. He will make the decision whether to proceed in coming weeks.
--Fabiola Gutierrez in Santiago and Chris Kraul in Bogota
Photo: Poet Pablo Neruda talks with reporters in Paris after winning the 1971 Nobel Prize for literature. Credit: Laurent Rebours / Associated Press