Death of a poet

Salvador Allende with Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who won the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature

“I am writing these quick lines for my memoirs only three days after the unspeakable events took my great comrade, Salvador Allende, to his death.”

Pablo Neruda, Nobel Prize-winning poet, added the final sentences to his memoir after a military coup overthrew the Socialist government of Salvador Allende. Soldiers raided his seaside home, and the poet, suffering from prostate cancer, is said to have told them, “There’s only one thing of danger for you here—poetry.”  A short time later the author of Canto General, a poetic treatise on Latin America, and Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair, was moved to a hospital in Santiago, where he died on September 23, 1973.  His funeral turned into the first public show of defiance against Chile’s new military regime.

Neruda did not believe the official account of Allende’s suicide, and for many years, neither did many of the late Chilean president’s family and supporters.  On May 23 Allende’s body was exhumed and is being examined by a multinational team of experts who hope to determine, once and for all, how the democratically-elected Marxist died. The initial inquiry has established that the cadaver is in fact Allende’s, but the complete investigation will take up to three months.

Senator Isabel Allende, the late president’s daughter, has stated she believes the account by Dr. Patricio Guijon, who said he saw Allende shoot himself. Guijon was arrested by the military and imprisoned, along with other Allende government officials, at a remote island camp in Chile’s extreme south. In a statement read during the exhumation, she said that the Allende family was convinced “that the president took the decision to die as a gesture of political coherence in defence of the mandate given him by the people.”

Chile’s national television station broadcast a report quoting a Uruguayan forensics specialist–who is not part of the investigation–who read the 1973 military report on Allende’s death and said there was evidence that the Chilean president might have received two shots. The program discussed the hypothesis that Allende might have attempted suicide, shot himself and then been given the coup de grace by one of his aides. Senator Allende criticized the broadcast as “an insult to scientific intelligence.”

Meanwhile, Chilean officials have opened an inquiry into Pablo Neruda’s death. The poet’s former driver recently recalled that shortly before he died Neruda complained that hospital staff had injected something into his stomach.  The Pablo Neruda Foundation ( quickly issued a statement rejecting this assertion, but the Chilean Communist Party requested a judicial investigation, citing other doubts about the circumstances surrounding his death. Though suffering from terminal cancer, Neruda was still able to walk around his hospital room and was talking with visitors about moving to Mexico before dying suddenly of a heart attack.  The deaths of the poet and the president have been added to 725 other cases of unresolved deaths during the Pinochet regime.

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