Inquiry into Pablo Neruda’s 1973 death reopened by Chile appeals court

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An appeals court in Chile’s capital on Tuesday ruled that the case of Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda’s death be reopened, saying the investigation has not been exhausted and new steps could help clarify the cause of his death.

Last December, a judge rejected a request by Neruda’s nephew to reopen the case to look for other causes of death than cancer, which is what is listed on the poet’s death certificate.

In February 2023, the nephew, Rodolfo Reyes, said forensic experts from Canada, Denmark and Chile had found evidence pointing to Neruda having died of poisoning more than 50 years ago.

Reyes said forensic tests carried out in Danish and Canadian labs indicated a presence in Neruda of “a great quantity of Cloristridium botulinum, which is incompatible with human life.” The powerful toxin can cause paralysis in the nervous system and death.

It was the latest turn in one of the great debates of post-coup Chile. The long-stated official position has been that Neruda died of complications from prostate cancer, but the poet’s driver argued for decades that he was poisoned.

In December, a judge ruled that the forensic results had already been carried out or were “late,” and didn’t lead anywhere.

NOBEL-PABLO NERUDA-PRESS
Chilean writer, poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda, then ambassador in France, answers journalists’ questions on October 21, 1971 next to his wife at the Chilean embassy in Paris after being awarded the 1971 Nobel Literature Prize.

Photo by AFP via Getty Images


Several years earlier, other international forensics experts had already rejected the official cause of death as cachexia, or weakness and wasting of the body due to chronic illness — in this case cancer. But at that time they said they had not determined what did kill Neruda.

On Tuesday, the appeals court unanimously revoked the judge’s resolution and ordered that the procedures requested by the nephew be carried out. These steps include a calligraphic analysis of the death certificate, a meta-analysis of the test results carried out by foreign agencies, and subpoenas for statements from Chile’s documentation project and an expert on Clostridium botulinum.

Neruda, a Communist Party member, died 12 days after the 1973 military coup that toppled the government of President Salvador Allende and hours before he was to leave Chile for exile in Mexico. The coup put Gen. Augusto Pinochet in power.

Neruda’s body was exhumed in 2013 to determine the cause of his death but those tests showed no toxic agents or poisons in his bone. His family and driver had demanded further investigation.

In 2015, Chile’s government said it was “highly probable that a third party” was responsible for Neruda’s death. In 2017, authorities reported the discovery of fragments of the Clostridium botulinum bacteria in his bone remains and in a molar.

Neruda was reburied in his favorite home overlooking the Pacific Coast.

Neruda, who was best known for his love poems, was a friend of Allende, who killed himself rather than surrender to troops during the coup led by Pinochet.

Neruda was traumatized by the military takeover and the persecution and killing of his friends. He planned to go into exile, where he would have been an influential voice against the dictatorship.

But a day before his planned departure, he was taken by ambulance to a clinic in Chile’s capital of Santiago where he had been treated for cancer and other ailments. Neruda officially died there Sept. 23, 1973.

But suspicions that the dictatorship had a hand in the death remained long after Chile returned to democracy in 1990.

During his life, Neruda accumulated dozens of prizes, including the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature.

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