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The Unsolved Mystery of Pablo Neruda's Alleged Poisoning

2024

An appeals court in Chile has ruled that the investigation into the death of Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, days after the country's 1973 military coup, should be reopened. The court stated that new steps could help clarify what killed the poet, who was best known for his love poems and accumulated dozens of prizes, including the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature.

The ruling comes after a request by Neruda's nephew, Rodolfo Reyes, to reopen the case and investigate causes other than cancer, which was listed on his death certificate. Reyes cited forensic experts from Canada, Denmark, and Chile who found evidence suggesting Neruda was poisoned. According to Reyes, forensic tests indicated a presence of "a great quantity of Cloristridium botulinum, which is incompatible with human life," a toxin that can cause nervous system paralysis and death.

The official position has long been that Neruda died of complications from prostate cancer, but his driver has argued for decades that he was poisoned. Previous international forensic experts rejected the official cause of death as cachexia, or weakness and wasting of the body due to chronic illness, but they did not determine what did kill Neruda.

The appeals court in Santiago unanimously revoked a judge's resolution from December that rejected the request to reopen the case. The new procedures include a calligraphic analysis of the death certificate, a meta-analysis of test results from foreign agencies, and subpoenas for statements from Chile's documentation project and an expert on Clostridium botulinum.

Neruda, a Communist Party member and friend of Chile's President Salvador Allende, planned to go into exile in Mexico, where he would have been an influential voice against the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. However, he died a day before his planned departure, on September 23, 1973, in a clinic in Santiago. Suspicions that the dictatorship had a hand in his death have persisted, and Neruda's body was exhumed in 2013 for further investigation.

Chile's government stated in 2015 that it was "highly probable that a third party" was responsible for Neruda's death. In 2017, authorities reported the discovery of fragments of Clostridium botulinum bacteria in his skeletal remains and teeth. Neruda was reburied in his favorite home overlooking the Pacific Coast, but questions surrounding his death continue to linger, prompting the recent ruling to reopen the investigation.

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