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Chile seeking answers in death of poet Neruda

Saturday - 4/6/2013, 12:14pm  ET

FILE - This Feb. 14, 1952 file photo shows Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in Capri, Italy. The perseverance and persistence during the last two decades from who was the driver and assistant of Neruda, who believes that the Pinochet dictatorship ordered the world-wide poet’s assassination, prompted a human rights judge to order on Feb. 8, 2013 the exhumation of his body. But chances are that the exhumation won’t be conclusive on whether the poet died in the middle of a treatment for prostate cancer or was killed by a doctor, whose existence no one can verify, to silence the vocal poet who was an active member of the Chilean Communist Party. Officially, Neruda died of cancer only days after the 1973 coup toppled his close friend, socialist President Salvador Allende. (AP Photo/File)

EVA VERGARA
Associated Press

ISLA NEGRA, Chile (AP) -- The body of Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda is being exhumed this weekend in an effort to clear up four decades of suspicion about how he died in the days after Chile's military coup.

A team of investigators is to begin digging on Sunday at Isla Negra, a rocky outcropping on the Pacific Coast where Neruda lived.

But forensic experts say there's little hope that the exhumation will answer the question of whether one of the greatest poets of the 20th century died of natural causes as was recorded, or if he was poisoned by the military dictatorship as his driver and some others believe.

Judge Mario Carroza approved a request by Chile's Communist Party for the disinterment, but did not permit the use of independent experts.

Neruda, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1971, was best known for his verses of romantic eroticism, especially the collection "Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair." He was also a leftist politician and diplomat and close friend of socialist President Santiago Allende, who committed suicide rather than surrender to troops during the Sept. 11, 1973, coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

In the days after the coup, Neruda's home in Isla Negra was raided by authorities and a Chilean warship was stationed off the coast, its cannons pointed directly at the house, Araya said. "They're going to blow us up," the poet told his driver, then 26 years old.

Neruda, 69 and suffering from prostate cancer, was said to be traumatized by the coup and the persecution and killing of his friends.

"I write these quick lines for my memories just three days after the indescribable acts that led to the death of my great friend President Allende," Neruda wrote in the last page of his autobiography: "I Confess I Have Lived."

Neruda planned to go into exile, where he would have been an influential voice against the dictatorship. A day before he planned to leave, he was taken by ambulance to the Santa Maria clinic, where he was being treated for cancer and other ailments.

Officially, Neruda died there on Sept. 23 from natural causes related to the emotional trauma of the coup. But suspicions that the dictatorship had a hand in the death have lingered long after Chile returned to a democracy in 1990.

Former President Eduardo Frei Montalva died at the same clinic nine years later. Although doctors listed the cause of his 1982 death as septic shock from stomach hernia surgery, an investigation almost three decades later showed that the vocal opponent of the Pinochet regime had been slowly poisoned to death.

Araya said he believes that agents of the dictatorship injected poison into Neruda's stomach at the clinic. "Our mistake was leaving Neruda by himself on Sept. 23. If he hadn't been left alone, they wouldn't have killed him," Araya told The Associated Press.

But the Pablo Neruda Foundation that manages the poet's estate rejected Araya's allegation and the Communist Party to which he belonged long declined to make an issue of it.

Araya said party officials finally paid attention when he gave an interview to a Mexican magazine in May 2011 that created an international uproar.

Proving Araya's theory will be daunting.

Neruda's remains have been buried for years in soil that receives intense coastal humidity. Once they are exhumed, investigators will then have to work with what experts say is outdated technology and equipment.

"No big or false hope should be made about the exhumation and the analysis of the remains of Neruda yielding a cause of death" said Dr. Luis Ravanal, a forensic specialist.

Chile's legal medicine laboratory "lacks basic equipment for the analysis of toxics and drugs that even the most modest labs own," he said. "Technically there's a big limitation; there is no sophisticated equipment to detect other substances, so they'll invariably have to seek other labs."

Ravanal also said that Chile lacks expertise in analyzing bone remains.

Chilean Communist Party lawyer Eduardo Contreras, who is overseeing the exhumation, said he was disappointed that outside experts were not allowed.

"There's no ill doing or trickery, but I think this not rigorous enough," Contreras said.

Mexico's ambassador to Chile at the time, Gonzalo Martinez Corbala, had arranged to send the poet into exile after the coup and the poet sent Araya to Isla Negra to collect some clothes, books, cash and the original manuscript for his autobiography before leaving for Mexico.

Martinez said he saw the poet at the hospital on a day before he died. "He seemed normal to me ... nothing could make you think that he was going to die," he recalled.

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