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Chilean Poet Neruda's Remains To Be Exhumed In Murder Probe


In Chile today, the famed poet Pablo Neruda's remains are being exhumed. The official cause of the Nobel Laureate's death in 1973 was cancer. But a new investigation is looking into whether he might have been murdered by the regime of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Here's NPR's South American correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Outside of Chile, Pablo Neruda is better known for verses like this.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair. Silent and starving, I prowl through the streets. Bread does not nourish me, dawn disrupts me. All day I hunt for the liquid measure of your steps.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Neruda was also a powerful political figure in his home country. An avowed communist, he represented his party in the Chilean senate and he was a candidate for the presidency in 1970. His close friend Salvador Allende ended up becoming the president instead.

On September 11, 1973 Allende was overthrown by the general Augusto Pinochet, kicking off one the bloodiest periods in Chile's history. Thousands of leftists were tortured and killed. During the coup, Allende allegedly killed himself. Twelve days later his great ally Neruda was also dead. Neruda's driver recently told a Mexican magazine that he believes Neruda was murdered.

EDUARDO CONTRERAS: (Through Translator) Neruda was a very dangerous figure to the regime because he was an icon.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Eduardo Contreras is a lawyer for the Communist Party in Chile. He kick-started the current investigation after the chauffeur's comments were published. He says it stands to reason Neruda would have been targeted as the coup leaders were trying to consolidate power.

CONTRERAS: (Through Translator) There exists these persistent suspicions because of all the contradictions in his medical records. It indicates that something strange happened during the death of the great poet.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Those medical records say that Neruda died of prostate cancer, but on the day of his death those close to him say he was in relatively good health and was preparing to flee into exile. He went to a clinic where he was being treated for cancer. Neruda's driver says it was there that he was given an injection which the driver believes was poison.

Former President Eduardo Frei Montalva died at the same clinic nine years after Neruda. An investigation recently concluded that the opponent of the Pinochet regime had been poisoned to death by Pinochet's secret police. But finding out the cause of Neruda's death won't be easy.

Neruda's remains have been buried for 40 years in moist coastal soil. Critics of the process say Chile doesn't have the specialized equipment required to examine bone remains. Dr Patricio Busto is the head of the investigative team that will be handling the exhumation.

DR. PATRICIO BUSTO: (Through Translator) There will be many challenges. But we will have one group looking for signs of his illness, and another with toxicologists looking for toxic chemical substances that he could have been given. It's possible we will have clear evidence but I won't say it's probable.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The results will be analyzed in labs outside the country. Lawyer Contreras says even if the exhumation proves inconclusive, he will pursue the case in the courts.

CONTRERAS: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says a country that can't face up to its difficult history has no future. The world, he says, must know the truth. As Pablo Neruda himself wrote: And I pray that my eyes never shut, even for death. I, who will need all my vision to learn, see at firsthand and interpret my dying. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.