Pablo Neruda: Chilean literary legend was poisoned after coup, report says

The writer’s leftist politics put him at odds with coup-mongers

The results of a forensic study carried out on the body of Pablo Neruda appear to show that the Chilean Nobel Prize-winning poet died from poisoning and not cancer as was previously believed.

Neruda died aged 69 in Santiago in 1973, just days after a military coup had overthrown the leftist government of Salvador Allende. His death had been attributed to prostate cancer. However, his former driver, Manuel Araya, and Chile’s Communist Party have long alleged that the poet was murdered.

Neruda’s nephew, Rodolfo Reyes, has told Spanish media that the results of a recent study confirmed this version of events, after it was found that a toxic substance previously detected in the writer’s body had been introduced externally.

“What does all this mean? That Neruda was murdered,” Mr Reyes told EFE news agency. “There was an intervention by state agents in 1973 which eliminated him.”


“Neruda wasn’t seriously ill,” said Elizabeth Flores, lawyer of the Neruda family. “He had cancer. He could walk, with difficulty. He had pain [but] he wasn’t ill enough to die at that time. That is the important thing.”

Neruda shot to fame after the publication of his early love poems. His reputation grew further with works such as Residence on Earth and the collection many see as his masterpiece, Canto general (or General Song).

Novelist Gabriel García Márquez described the Chilean as “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language”.

An outspoken communist, Neruda supported Spain’s republican government during the country’s civil war and, in 1949, he was forced to flee Chile by horseback to escape arrest. He later became close to Allende, who came to power in 1970 before killing himself during the coup d’état, which was led by Augusto Pinochet. Gen Pinochet went on to rule the country as a dictator.

A previous investigation into the causes of the death of Neruda confirmed the original cancer theory in 2013. A second group of experts discovered toxic bacteria, clostridium botulinum, in his body four years later but their findings regarding his death were inconclusive. The latest panel of investigators, from Latin America, North America and Europe, has now found that the bacteria was introduced into Neruda’s body by an external agent, through injection or ingestion, according to Mr Reyes.

The report is due to be presented officially on Wednesday, as part of a judicial investigation prompted by the Chilean Communist Party’s murder allegation. The investigating judge, Paola Plaza, will then decide whether to take the case any further.

Despite his towering literary reputation, Neruda’s image has suffered in recent years due to a feminist reassessment of his work and his own confession in his memoirs of raping a maid in Ceylon. In 2018, a backlash over this incident thwarted a proposal to rename Santiago airport after the poet.

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Spain