Cancer didn't kill Pablo Neruda, says expert panel

International experts could not determine whether Chilean Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda was murdered.
International experts could not determine whether Chilean Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda was murdered.

SANTIAGO • International experts have announced that Chilean Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda did not die of cancer, but could not conclusively determine if he was assassinated by the late dictator Augusto Pinochet's regime.

Neruda, a celebrated poet, politician, diplomat and bohemian, died in 1973 aged 69, just days after General Pinochet, then the head of the Chilean army, overthrew the Socialist president Salvador Allende in a bloody coup.

The writer, who was also a prominent member of the Chilean Communist Party, had been preparing to flee into exile in Mexico to lead the resistance against Gen Pinochet's regime. He died in a Santiago clinic where he was being treated for prostate cancer.

The subsequent death of former president Eduardo Frei at the same clinic, where he had gone for a routine operation, reinforced the thesis that Neruda was murdered.

"The (death) certificate does not reflect the real cause of death," Mr Aurelio Luna said at a news conference on behalf of a panel of experts, referring to the official explanation that cancer killed the famed writer.

The group of 16 experts from Canada, Denmark, the United States, Spain and Chile - 12 of whom worked in Santiago, while the rest worked from abroad - could neither confirm nor rule out the hypothesis that Neruda was murdered.

"We do not have that definitive conclusion, we do not have the determination that there was indeed intervention of third parties," said investigating judge Mario Carroza, who is handling the case.

The experts discovered bacteria that are already being studied in labs in Canada and Denmark, and could offer more insight into the cause of Neruda's death.

Following the exhumation of his remains in 2013, studies in Chile and abroad discovered Staphylococcus aureus, a highly infections bacterial species that can be lethal, but not conclusive evidence that it was the cause of death.

The investigation began in 2011 after Neruda's former driver and personal assistant claimed that he was given a mysterious injection in his chest just before he died. His assertion is supported by the Neruda family, which maintains a lawsuit seeking to clarify the circumstances of his death.

Gen Pinochet, who ruled Chile for 17 years, installed a regime that killed some 3,200 leftist activists and other suspected opponents.

He died in 2006 at age 91 without ever being convicted on the crimes committed by his regime.

Neruda won the Nobel prize in 1971 "for a poetry that with the action of an elemental force brings alive a continent's destiny and dreams", in the words of the award committee. He is most remembered for his sensual, longing love poems.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 22, 2017, with the headline 'Cancer didn't kill Pablo Neruda, says expert panel'. Print Edition | Subscribe