(First published in Mint Press News)
Tuesday marks the anniversary of a suspicious death during Chile’s dictatorship era – that of Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda on Sept. 23, 1973. Renowned for his passionate and politically-charged poetry, Neruda was one of the intellectuals greatly feared by Augusto Pinochet and his U.S.-backed dictatorship.
Culture – one of the pillars of President Salvador Allende’s revolutionary process – was to be severely suppressed by the dictatorship and its propagators tortured, murdered or exiled. Starting with la nueva canción Chilena, a revolutionary folk music movement, and moving on to the dissemination of literature, Neruda would become a prime target for the dictatorship following the suspicious circumstances under which Allende met his own death.
It is certain that Allende died during the coup staged by Pinochet’s forces. What remains unclear, however, is how. With the presidential palace La Moneda surrounded by Pinochet’s forces, Allende either committed suicide — as the official account of his death states — or was assassinated on Sept. 11, 1973.
As with Allende, there is a degree of uncertainty surrounding Neruda’s death. Official records indicate that the poet succumbed to advanced prostate cancer. This narrative remained uncontested until testimony from Manuel Araya, Neruda’s personal assistant and chauffeur, revealed a sinister plot culminating in the premeditated murder of the poet at the Santa Maria Clinic in Santiago, where Neruda sought refuge until plans for exile in Mexico were finalized.
In 2011, Manuel Araya declared himself the sole witness to Neruda’s murder, an act allegedly perpetrated by a CIA agent also working under the dictatorship. “I only ask that the truth is uncovered. The truth is, Neruda did not die a natural death. Neruda died by injection,” Araya insisted.
A compelling case for CIA involvement
Investigative reporter and author Francisco Marín has written extensively about the case, with his research being published in a 2012 book titled “El Doble Asesinato de Neruda” (“The Double Murder of Neruda”). Based on extensive testimony offered by Araya, forensic evidence, and the circumstances surrounding the upholding of the official version despite the dissonance, Marín has managed to present a compelling case that the poet had indeed been murdered by the dictatorship.
Prior to his arrival at the Santa Maria Clinic, Neruda, a staunch Allende supporter and advisor, had been abandoned with his wife, Matilde Urrutia, and Araya at La Isla Negra, the poet’s coastal residence. Their only possible means of communication was a transmitter, which they used to contact the Mexican embassy.
Neruda’s plans following the takeover of the presidential palace involved going into exile to establish a proper resistance abroad. With the Mexican ambassador’s help, Neruda was transferred to the clinic by ambulance, where he would stay until plans for his exile were finalized. The voyage was replete with checks and surveillance. Such a wholly humiliating ordeal was a speciality of the Tejas Verdes contingent — the brigade under the command of Direccion de Inteligencia Nacional (the National Intelligence Directorate, or DINA) chief Manuel Contreras which was responsible for the worst atrocities committed during the dictatorship era.
On Sept. 22, Neruda was advised that the plane offering safe passage to Mexico would leave Chile two days later, on Sept. 24. As Matilde and Araya returned from La Isla Negra after packing the poet’s belongings, they claim to have discovered that something had been injected into Neruda’s stomach. Only moments later, Araya was entreated by a doctor at the clinic to “urgently buy a remedy that is unavailable in the clinic.” Sent to an obscure street away from the center of Santiago, Araya was ambushed, beaten, and wounded in the leg, then he was transferred to the Estadio Nacional — Chile’s national stadium which had been transformed into a detention and torture camp under Pinochet. Here, Araya endured severe torture by DINA.
The location of Neruda’s death and the suspected identity of the “doctor” who allegedly administered the toxic injection to the poet are especially significant points to examine. The Santa Maria Clinic has, in recent years, come under greater scrutiny with regard to human rights violations committed during the dictatorship era. Former Chilean President Eduardo Frei died at the clinic following surgery in 1982. While his death was officially attributed to sepsis, it was later alleged that Frei had been administered toxic substances during his hospitalization, making Frei’s death another crime attributed to DINA.
Meanwhile, biological and chemical weapons experimentation formed a significant part of Pinochet’s dictatorship, with newly manufactured weapons routinely tested on tortured detainees. The manufacturing was the responsibility of biochemist Eugenio Berrios and former CIA and DINA agent Michael Townley, a U.S. citizen currently living under the witness protection program in his home country. Dr. Sergio Draper, a doctor who worked at the clinic during Neruda’s stay, has named Townley as the unidentified doctor who allegedly administered the toxic injection to the poet.
Townley’s stint in DINA was recorded by several witnesses, who have even placed him at the notorious Cuartel Simon Bolivar extermination site. Jorgelino Vergara Bravo, a former errand boy working under the command of DINA chief Contreras who was later transferred to the extermination center, witnessed Townley experiment with chemical weapons upon two indigenous detainees. Townley was also involved in the assassination of Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier in Washington, on Sept. 21, 1976, for which he was convicted and sentenced to 62 months in prison in 1978.
Meanwhile, shortly before his death, right wing-affiliated newspapers La Tercera and El Mercurio had slowly started reporting about Neruda’s allegedly deteriorating health. According to Marín’s research, Pinochet sought to quell Chilean sensitivity and forthcoming indignation at Neruda’s impending death by issuing a statement: “Neruda is not dead. He is alive and free to travel wherever he likes, as befits other people of old age and struck with infirmity. We do not kill anyone and, if Neruda dies, it will be of natural causes.”
On Sept. 23, El Mercurio reported that Neruda’s health had taken a turn for the worse — a report that coincided with the day the toxic injection was allegedly administered to Neruda.
Within the wider framework, the suspicious circumstances of Neruda’s death align perfectly with the brutal dynamics of the dictatorship. As with nueva canción musicians, writers and intellectuals were also targeted by the dictatorship, with many of them going into exile to escape torture and imprisonment. While attempts to fund and form resistance abroad resulted in predictable splits within the groups, Pinochet’s obsession with overseas opposition led to extreme measures of surveillance through collaboration with various agencies and embassies, as documented by authors Mauricio Weibel and Carlos Dorat. Had Neruda managed to escape Chile, a political resistance acknowledged abroad might have endured, as Allende had frequently visited Neruda at La Isla Negra, seeking the Communist Party member’s political advice.
Exhuming Neruda’s remains
In April 2013, Pablo Neruda’s remains were exhumed to be tested for toxic substances, in order to challenge the state’s official stance that Neruda had succumbed to advanced and metastatic prostate cancer. The process leading to the legal order was fraught with difficulties, not least because the Neruda Foundation refused to cooperate, adamantly insisting upon the official version as the truth. Marín has uncovered other disturbing details about the Neruda Foundation, including its affiliation with Ricardo Claro, a torture coordinator under Pinochet’s dictatorship, who ran the Chilean enterprise Cristalerías Chile which provided funding to the dictatorship.
Preliminary investigations were inconclusive, determining that while no toxic substances were discovered in Neruda’s remains, further tests were to be conducted – thus leaving open the possibility of assassination.
Communist Party lawyer Eduardo Contreras has also requested DNA testing upon the remains to confirm that the exhumed body was indeed Neruda’s. Though ridiculed by many, this insistence on DNA tests is not excessive. In the 1980s Pinochet ordered the exhumation and destruction of the bodies of dictatorship victims under the codename “La Operación Retiro de Televisores” (“Operation of TV Removals”). It’s possible that Neruda’s body may have been substituted for another.
Speaking to Marín, it is evident that impunity retains a stronghold in Chile, while the lack of conclusive evidence has kept the story away from prominent media.
“I feel that no significant progress has been made. Last November the international commission of experts who analyzed the case failed to reach a determined conclusion,” Marín told MintPress News. “What has been repeated in the press is that Neruda was suffering from advanced cancer, thus the interested in the subject had dwindled. But the truth is that there is no proof that Neruda was suffering from advanced cancer.”
On the subject of forensic evidence, Marín has spoken at length to forensic expert Luis Ravanal, who pointed out the medical inconsistencies that cast doubt upon the officially disseminated version of Neruda’s death.
Additionally, Marín noted that Neruda’s family, represented by legal attorney Rodolfo Reyes, asked for public clarification with regard to the presence of metastasis in the exhumed remains of Neruda, yet that request was not upheld.
“The cause has also been severely affected by the fact that the most active player in this case, lawyer Eduardo Contreras, was appointed as ambassador to Uruguay, thus leaving a void with regard to the duties necessary to reach a conclusion in this case,” he said.
However, Marín reserved harsh criticism for Chile’s Servicio Medico Legal (SML) – the entity responsible for forensic investigation with regard to crimes committed during the dictatorship era.
“The most unfortunate thing is that the SML still does not recognize the obvious. Neruda was not suffering from cachexia at the time of death, as inscribed in the official documents from the Clinica Santa Maria and which was reproduced on the death certificate,” he said.
Impunity and collaboration
The case of Pablo Neruda’s assassination reflects impunity and collaboration as prominent themes running throughout Chile’s dictatorship era and even into the present. Once again, the diverging memory frameworks in Chile are resonant, with agencies related to the state rarely discovering evidence that contradicts the widely corrupt disseminated narrative.
With regard to Neruda, the official version of his death has been formidably challenged by both Araya and Marín – the latter skilfully portraying the dynamics of the dictatorship, evident within other narratives, through the lens of Neruda’s particular case.
Rather than relying on the usual tactics of right-wing versus left-wing narratives, Neruda’s case should be considered as part of the multitude of human rights violations committed by the dictatorship – the murder of a man, as many others had been murdered, with one striking difference: In eliminating Neruda, Pinochet stood to extend his own political survival. Hence, forthcoming proof that Neruda had been murdered would constitute an addition to a series of politically motivated crimes — a means to ensure the permanent elimination of political opposition that could have properly challenged the dictatorship.