Who Killed Pablo Neruda?

pablo neruda

On September 23, 1973 Pablo Neruda, one of the greatest poets ever and a Nobel laureate, breathed his last. This was just 12 days after the US-assisted  military coup in Chile on September 11 1973 which also resulted in the highly tragic and widely mourned death of one of the most sincere and democratic leaders of Latin America—President Salvador Allende—who also happened to be a close friend of Pablo Neruda.

In what way were the two highly tragic events inter-connected? Before attempting to answer this question it should be recalled that Neruda was not just a great poet, he was also a political activist, leader and diplomat who was always allied to left-leaning, pro-people forces of his country (in particular he was very close to President Allende) and hence was considered by various right-wing dictatorships of Chile to be their enemy. After receiving the Nobel Prize for literature his international stature had gone up so much that he was being considered even more of a serious obstacle by extreme right-wing forces.

Although at the time of his death, the cause of Neruda’s death was officially stated to be cancer and/or heart attack, poisoning and murder have been widely stated to be real cause from time to time, and this was even stated in an official statement from Chile a few years back. In 2011 Neruda’s chauffeur had alleged that the great poet was mysteriously injected in the stomach just before his death. In 2013, Neruda’s body was exhumed under orders from a judge. Very recently, on February 15 2023, after a decade-long investigation, a team of forensic experts gave their final report regarding their examination of exhumed remains. These experts found in Neruda’s body a potentially toxic type of bacteria that would not naturally occur, and confirmed that it was in the system when he died. Other circumstantial evidence confirms the murder theory too, including the fact that in 1981 the military regime of Chile poisoned political prisoners with somewhat similar bacteria.

As it appears most likely that Neruda was murdered, a question arises as to who should be held responsible for this? Should this be only the new military regime, or should the international supporters of the coup and the new regime who should also be held responsible?

Before this coup, Chile had enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as a country of strong democratic tradiitions with regular elections and stability for decades. This was further strengthened with the election of Allende as President in September 1970 with a socialist pro-people agenda.

Allende was earlier a public health physician who emerged as leader of the Socialist Party. He joined hands with other left oriented groups to form the Popular Unity Government. Determined to use natural resources of the country to help the poorer people, this government nationalized copper mines and went ahead with land reforms.

This agenda was strongly disliked by the Nixon –Kissinger regime in the USA known for its very aggressive foreign policy. Earlier strong efforts had been made by the USA and its local allies to somehow prevent Allende’s election, using legal as well as illegal methods.

Unfortunately these forces refused even to accept the democratic verdict and inleashed a series of actions aimed at subverting the Allende government. An undeclared economic blockade of sorts was declared towards Allende-led Chile. A CIA telegram to its local station uncovered later stated—it is “firm and continuing” policy that Allende must be overthrown while ensuring that the “American hand be hidden.”

Chilean military officers regularly visiting the USA for training proved to be important contact points. Heavy weapons including missiles were arranged to be available to military units likely to join the coup. Several efforts were made to disrupt economy and then channelize the resulting discontent into opposition  to the Allende government . Several strikes were instigated and added to the chaos.

In June 1973 several rebel tanks advanced towards the Presidential palace but this  coup attempt was foiled. The second attempt starting on September 11 was planned more extensively and Allende found himself cornered in the Presidential palace. Still he strongly refused to accept an offer of escaping to exile and decided to fight on till the end.

With US help the rebels had managed to assemble great military strength. This was one of the few coups where even the Air Force was used to bombard the President’s residence.

With both the Presidential Palace and the radio station being bombarded, President Allende made his famous farewell speech. He started by saying that this would be his last address to his people, conveying immediately the seriousness of the situation. He then announced—I am not going to resign! Placed in a historic transition, I will pay for the loyalty to the people with my life. And I say to them I am certain that the seeds we have planted in the good conscience of thousands and thousands will not be shriveled.”

President Allende was keen in this hour of crisis to warn his people of its roots—“foreign capital, imperialism, together with the reaction, created the conditions in which the armed forces broke the tradition.”

With bombs and bullets roaring around him, Allende declared—“Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers! These are my last words, and I am certain my sacrifice will not be in vain.”

Allende died soon after.

Given the enormity of the attack including Bombing by Air Force, the relatively much smaller guarding the President fought extremely bravely,but the unmatched battle was over before the evening.

This was followed by military rule. Several thousand were killed, listed to have disappeared, and even more were tortured in the most cruel way. In Nazi type tortures, doctors were employed to somehow keep torture victims alive until torture could start all over again. The number of the imprisoned crossed the hundred thousand mark. Those known to have leftist inclinations were most marked for imprisonment, torture or death. Special caravans of death went around the coutry hunting for targets.  Augusto Pinochet who took over Chile after some time (he was one of the key players in the coup) emerged as one of the most cruel dictators of all times who also threw upon the doors for foreign capital and plunder.

Historian Peter Wins has called this one of the most violent episodes in the history of Chile and pointed to the extensive evidence of US complicity. A US intelligence report in 2000 prepared at  the diection of the National intelligence council  also admitted that the CIA was aware in advance of coup plotting and plotters, had intelligence collection relations them, was involved in an earlier  coup effort in 1970 and actively assisted the military junta which took over after the death of Allende.

When seen in this wider context, it is clear that the likelihood of Pablo Neruda having been murdered by the same forces which toppled and killed democratically elected popular President Allende is very high, and if this is true, then those forces in the USA which supported and instigated this coup also share at least part of the responsibility for the tragic circumstances of the death of Pablo Neruda.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Protect Earth. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children, Planet in Peril and a Day in 2071.

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