Truth about poet’s 1973 death may be known at last

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Chilean forensic experts have exhumed the body of Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda in a bid to solve a four-decade mystery about the death of one the greatest poets of the 20th century.

Officially, he died from prostate cancer and the trauma of witnessing the 1973 military coup that led to the death and persecution of many of his friends. But his driver and many other Chileans say Neruda was murdered by agents of General Augusto Pinochet’s regime.

Experts had been concerned that high salinity and humidity could affect the exhumation yesterday, because Neruda is buried next to his wife in Isla Negra, his home on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

But Patricio Bustos, head of Chile’s medical legal service, said Neruda’s coffin was in good shape. After draping it in the Chilean national flag, forensics workers took his remains to the capital for tests.

Neruda, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1971, was best known for his romantic verses. He was also a left-wing diplomat and close friend of socialist president Santiago Allende, who committed suicide rather than surrender to troops during the coup on 11 September, 1973, that removed him from power.

Neruda had planned to go into exile, where he would have been an influential voice against the dictatorship. A day before he was scheduled to leave, he was taken by ambulance to the Santa Maria hospital in Santiago, where he was being treated for cancer and other ailments. Officially, he died there on 23 September from natural causes.

For years, his driver and bodyguard, Manuel Araya, has claimed the poet was murdered when agents of the dictatorship injected poison into his stomach at the clinic.