After a decade-long investigation, a team of forensic experts issued their final report on the exhumed remains of the acclaimed Chilean poet. Here’s why there are so many questions around his death.
By Flávia Milhorance
Feb. 15, 2023
Fifty years on, the true cause of death of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, in the wake of the country’s 1973 coup d’état, has remained in doubt across the world.
The Nobel laureate was not only one of the world’s most celebrated poets but also one of Chile’s most influential political activists. An outspoken communist, he supported Salvador Allende, Chile’s leftist president from 1970 to 1973, and worked in his administration.
Mr. Neruda’s death in a private clinic just weeks after the coup was determined to be the result of cancer, but the timing and the circumstances have long raised doubts about whether his death was something more nefarious.
On Wednesday, The New York Times reviewed the summary of findings compiled by international forensic experts who had examined Mr. Neruda’s exhumed remains and identified bacteria that can be deadly. In a one-page summary of their report, shared with The New York Times, the scientists confirmed that the bacteria was in his body when he died, but said they could not distinguish whether it was a toxic strain of the bacteria nor whether he was injected with it or instead ate contaminated food.
The findings once again leave open the question of whether Mr. Neruda was murdered.
Who was Pablo Neruda?
Mr. Neruda was a Chilean lawmaker, diplomat and Nobel laureate poet. He was regarded as one of Latin America’s greatest poets and was the leading spokesman for Chile’s leftist movement until the ascendancy of a socialist president, Mr. Allende, in 1970.
Born July 12, 1904, he grew up in Parral, a small agricultural community in southern Chile. His mother, a schoolteacher, died shortly after he was born; his father was a railway employee who did not support his literary aspirations. Despite that, Mr. Neruda started writing poetry at the age of 13.
During his lifetime, Mr. Neruda occupied several diplomatic positions in countries including Argentina, Mexico, Spain and France. To the end of his life, he was as engaged in political activism as in poetry.
Mr. Neruda died in a clinic in Santiago, Chile’s capital, at the age of 69. His death came less than two weeks after that of his friend and political ally, Mr. Allende, who died by suicide to avoid surrendering to the military after his government was toppled in September 1973.
How was he as a political figure?
During his time in Barcelona as a diplomat, Mr. Neruda’s experience of the Spanish Civil War pushed him into a more engaged political stance. “Since then,” he later wrote, “I have been convinced that it is the poet’s duty to take his stand.”
The diplomat lost his post because of his support of the Spanish Republic, which was dissolved after surrendering to the Nationalists of Gen. Francisco Franco. He also lobbied to save more than 2,000 refugees displaced by Mr. Franco’s dictatorship.
Mr. Neruda, a lifelong member of the Communist Party, served only one term in office. As a senator, he was critical of the government of President Gabriel González Videla, who ruled Chile from 1946 to 1952, which led Mr. Neruda into forced exile for four years.