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Image: Pablo Neruda shaking hands during a luncheon at the Mexican foreign ministry on July 8, 1943
AP file
Pablo Neruda, shown here in the center shaking hands during a luncheon at the Mexican foreign ministry on July 8, 1943, officially died of natural causes brought on by the trauma of witnessing the 1973 military coup.
updated 1/15/2012 11:02:08 AM ET 2012-01-15T16:02:08

The suspicions have lingered for decades.

Pablo Neruda, Chile's Nobel Prize-winning poet, would have been a powerful voice in exile against the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. But that all changed just 24 hours before Neruda was to flee the country in the chaos following the 1973 military coup.

He was 69 years old and suffering from prostate cancer when he died, exactly 12 days after the brutal coup that ended the life of his close friend, socialist President Salvador Allende.

The official version was that he died of natural causes brought on by the trauma of witnessing the coup and the lethal persecution of many of his friends. But doubts remained, even after Pinochet relinquished power in 1990 and Chile became one of Latin America's most stable democracies.

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Chilean Communist Party lawyer Eduardo Contreras said he believes the poet was murdered, and he is supported by Manuel Araya, who was Neruda's driver, bodyguard and assistant in the year leading up to his death.

While Neruda's widow and his own foundation continue to reject the theory, its resurgence nearly 40 years later reflects the suspicions haunting this nation of 17 million that the full story behind the coup and the dictatorship remains untold.

Araya has long contended that a doctor — not Neruda's regular one — gave him a fatal injection at the Santa Maria clinic or ordered somebody to do so. Talking to The Associated Press, Araya described the day of Neruda's death at the clinic, where the poet was being treated for his cancer, phlebitis and a hip problem. Araya had accompanied him as his bodyguard to protect him ahead of his departure from Chile. He himself wasn't there,and says the story was told to him by a nurse whose name he has forgotten.

"Coincidentally," Araya said in sarcastic manner, Dr. Sergio Draper "was passing by in the hallway when a nurse called to him and said that Neruda was in a lot of pain, and this doctor, very considerately, goes and gives him a Dipirona (analgesic), and the Dipirona... killed him."

Shrouded by suspicion

Adding to the conspiracy theories, it was at the same Santa Maria clinic where another prominent Pinochet critic, former President Eduardo Frei, was allegedly poisoned while recovering from hernia surgery in 1982. A judge in Chile has accused four doctors and two of the dictator's agents in Frei's death. The case is ongoing, and Frei's body has been exhumed. One of the doctors questioned in the case, though not accused: Sergio Draper.

The AP was unable to reach the doctor for comment, after contacting the clinic where Neruda was treated and one of Chile's main medical schools.

Roberto Candia  /  AP
Manuel Araya, former driver and personal secretary of Pablo Neruda, suspects the poet was poisoned in the chaos that followed the country's 1973 military coup.

However, in an interview published in the Argentine newspaper Clarin in September, Draper strongly denied the allegation. he said he was only following the instructions of Neruda's physician, Vargas Salazar, to help relieve the patient's pain by giving him what he remembers was the drug Dipirona.

"I ordered that he be given an injection prescribed by his physician," Draper said. "I was nothing more than a messenger. It's outrageous that we are constantly under suspicion."

Neruda and Allende symbolized a turbulent, confrontational era in Chilean history, and their deaths following the Sept. 11, 1973 coup have long been shrouded by suspicion. Authorities recently exhumed Allende's body and confirmed that the former president committed suicide rather than be captured as troops moved in on the presidential palace.

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Pinochet's dictatorship lasted from 1973 to 1990, and left 3,095 opponents of the military regime dead or missing, according to recent government statistics. There were 37,000 political prisoners. Neruda's fame as a poet and dissident was posthumously heightened by "Il Postino," or "The Postman," a semi-fictional 1994 film about his exile that won several Oscar nominations. He is buried on the Isla Negra estate where he lived.

In December, Chile's Communist Party asked that Neruda's body also be exhumed for testing. The judge investigating his death has not ruled, but veteran forensic expert Dr. Luis Ravanal said it could be difficult to find traces of toxic substances that would confirm poisoning.

"It is one thing is to detect a substance, another to demonstrate that it is there in sufficient quantities to kill him," he told the AP. "It is difficult to determine if it is a lethal or therapeutic dosage."

But Contreras says an exhumation is needed. He said medical records and Araya's account proved to him that Neruda's cancer was under control at the time of his death.

"One thing is clear: Neruda didn't die of cancer," Contreras said.

Contreras said the death certificate issued at the clinic listed the cause of death as cachexia, or extreme malnutrition and weight loss that left him unable to carry out minimal activities. But at the moment of his death, Neruda weighed more than 220 pounds (100 kilograms), Contreras and Araya said.

"Now I have doubts"

Mexico's ambassador to Chile at the time of the coup, Gonzalo Martinez Corbala, told the AP from Mexico City that he found no change in Neruda between visits to him before and after the coup.

Martinez said that before hearing the driver's statements he had suspected nothing unnatural about Neruda's death. "Now I have doubts," he said.

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The Pablo Neruda Foundation, which manages his estate, author rights and house/museum, rejects the claims of his driver.

"It doesn't seem reasonable to build a new version of the death of the poet based only on the opinions of his driver," the foundation said in a statement, contending that Araya does not present any credible evidence to support his claims.

"The Sept. 11, 1973 coup, the death of his friend, President Salvador Allende, and the persecution launched against others of his friends, caused his health to deteriorate to the point that ... he had to be transferred in an emergency from his Isla Negra home to the Santa Maria Clinic on September 19," where he died of natural causes, said the foundation in a statement.

Araya says he went at least eight times to Communist Party directors to tell his story, but they paid no attention.

Contreras explained. "We were in a dictatorship; we weren't at the time interested in information different from that given by Matilde," he said, referring to Neruda's widow, Matilde Urrutia, who supported the foundation's conclusion until her death.

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Araya, refuses to speak to Chilean media, finally took his story to the respected Mexican investigative magazine Proceso, and the May 2011 article went viral.

That persuaded the party to pay attention.

"Everything indicates that it was a heart attack (that caused his death)," Contreras said. "What caused the attack? The injection... If you read the literature on Dipirona you are going to find that it is lethal when given in excess."

The Chilean newspaper El Mercurio, which backed the dictatorship at the time, reported in its Sept. 24, 1973, edition that Neruda had died in a way similar to what Araya described. It said that the poet died "of a heart attack ... a consequence of a shock. After receiving an injection of a sedative, his condition deteriorated" and he entered a pre-coma state and died.

Draper was one of several doctors called to testify in the possible killing of former President Frei. Frei was recovering from a hernia operation in the Santa Maria clinic when his health suddenly deteriorated and he died in January 1982. Six people have been accused of poisoning him, according to the judicial file.

Neruda's case since May has been in the hands of Judge Mario Carroza, who also investigated the death of Allende. Advised by a team of international forensic experts, he concluded that Allende had committed suicide.

He is also trying to determine how 725 opponents of the dictatorship died.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: The lit list: Nobel Prize winners

  • The Nobel Prize in literature is regarded by many as the highest honor a writer can receive. The award, presented by the Swedish Academy, is given to a writer based on his or her entire body of work, and the prize money amounts to about $1.5 million. Check out some of the authors  and poets who have won since 1988, and get to know the books that are considered some of the most important in the literary world.

  • Tomas Transtromer (2011)

    Jessica Gow  /  AP

    Country: Sweden

    Influential works:

    - "Windows and Stones"
    - "Baltics"
    - "The Great Enigma"

    Long a favorite to win the award, poet Transtromer is considered one of the most important Scandinavian writers since World War II. His surrealistic works about the mysteries of the human mind have been translated into more than 50 languages and influenced poets around the globe. The Swedish Academy said it recognized him "because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality."

  • Mario Vargas Llosa (2010)

    Image: Mario Vargas Llosa
    Pierre-philippe Marcou  /  AFP - Getty Images
    Country: Peru

    Influential works:

    - "The Time of the Hero"
    - "The Green House"
    - "Conversation in the Cathedral"

    Novelist, essayist and politician, Vargas Llosa is arguably Latin America’s most influential writer. He has written humor, mysteries, historical novels and political thrillers as well as literary criticism. The Swedish Academy cited him "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt and defeat."

  • Herta Mueller (2009)

    Bernd Weissbrod  /  EPA

    Country: Romania

    Influential works:

    - "Nadirs"
    - "Oppressive Tango"
    - "The Passport"

    Herta Mueller is the 12th woman to win the prize. Most of her work is in German, but some have been translated into English French and Spanish. "I think that there is an incredible force in what she writes, she has a very, very unique style," said Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy.

  • Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio (2008)

    Country: France

    Influential works:

    - "The Deposition"
    - "Desert"
    - "Beloved Earth"

    Le Clezio has written on several themes incuding insanity, childhood and traveling. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for being an "author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization."

  • Doris Lessing (2007)

    Shaun Curry  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: United Kingdom

    Influential works:

    - "The Grass is Singing"
    - "The Golden Notebook"
    - "The Good Terrorist"

    At 87, Lessing was the oldest person to be bestowed the literature prize, as well as the 11th woman to win. The Swedish Academy praised her as the "epicist of the female experience."

  • Orhan Pamuk (2006)

    Fred Dufour  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: Turkey

    Influential works:

    - "My Name is Red"
    - "Snow"
    - "Istanbul: Memories of a City"

    Pamuk was the first Turkish person to receive the prize. The Academy cited Pamuk as one "who in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures."

  • Harold Pinter (2005)

    Carl De Souza  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: United Kingdom

    Influential works:

    - "The Dumb Waiter"
    - "The Caretaker"
    - "The New World Order"

    A playwright, screenwriter, actor, director, poet and activist, Pinter was cited by the Academy as one who "forces entry into oppression's closed rooms."

  • Elfriede Jelinek (2004)

    Afp  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: Austria

    Influential works:

    - "We are Decoys, Baby!"
    - "Wonderful, Wonderful Times"
    - "The Piano Teacher"

    A feminist playwright and novelist whose work was often highly controversial, Jelinek was awarded the prize for her ability to "reveal the absurdity of society's cliches and their subjugating power" with "linguistic zeal."

  • John M. Coetzee (2003)

    Tiziana Fabi  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: South Africa

    Influential works:

    - "Waiting for the Barbarians"
    - "Life and Times of Michael K"
    - "Disgrace"

    Coetzee was the first author to win the Book Prize twice. Upon winning the Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy cited Coetzee as one "who in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider."

  • Imre Kertesz (2002)

    Jochen Luebke  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: Hungary

    Influential works:

    - "Fatelessness"
    - "Kaddish for a Child Not Born"
    - "Liquidation"

    Kertesz was a Holocaust concentration camp survivor, and his experiences were the basis for much of his work. He received the Nobel Prize "for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history."

  • V.S. Naipaul (2001)

    Indranil Mukherjee  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: United Kingdom (born in Trinidad)

    Influential works:

    - "In a Free State"
    - "The Middle Passage"
    - "A Million Mutinies Now"
    - "The Enigma of Arrival"

    Naipaul's work, often centered on Third World narratives, is known for its rejection of victimhood. The Academy noted that Naipaul created works "that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories."

  • Gao Xingjian (2000)

    Vittorio Zunino Celotto  /  Getty Images file

    Country: France (born in China)

    Influential works:

    - "Soul Mountain"
    - "Fugitives"
    - "One Man's Bible"

    Xingjian, a playright and novelist, pioneered absurdist drama in China. The Academy cited Xingjian's "bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity, which have opened new paths for the Chinese novel and drama."

  • Guenter Grass (1999)

    Sean Gallup  /  Getty Images file

    Country: Germany

    Influential works:

    - "The Tin Drum"
    - "Cat and Mouse"
    - "Dog Years"
    - "Crabwalk"

    A poet, novelist and playwright, Grass's work was a literary representation of the German experience during the Nazi era. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for his "frolicsome black fables that portray the forgotten face of history."

  • Jose Saramago (1998)

    Ivan Garcia  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: Portugal

    Influential works:

    - "Baltasar and Blimunda"
    - "Blindness"
    - "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ"

    Much of Saramago's writing was controversial, presenting the perspective of insurgents from historic events. The Academy cited his "parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony."

  • Dario Fo (1997)

    Filippo Monteforte  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: Italy

    Influential works:

    - "Archangels Don't Play Pinball"
    - "Fedayin"
    - "Mistero Buffo"

    Fo's satire has criticized the Catholic policy on abortion and political corruption. The Academy praised him as one "who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden."

  • Wislawa Szymborska (1996)

    Filip Miller  /  AP file

    Country: Poland

    Influential works:

    - "Non-required Reading"
    - "A Large Number"
    - "Poems New and Collected, 1957-1997"

    Szymborska's poetry has been translated to Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese and Chinese, in addition to several European languages. The Academy awarded her "for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light."

  • Seamus Heaney (1995)

    Chris Jackson  /  Getty Images file

    Country: Ireland

    Influential works:

    - "Death of a Naturalist"
    - "North"
    - "The Cure at Troy"

    Much of Heaney's poetry focused on his analysis of the violence in Northern Ireland. He was awarded the Nobel Prize "for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past."

  • Kenzaburo Oe (1994)

    Afp  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: Japan

    Influential works:

    - "Okinawa Notes"
    - "Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids"
    - "Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness"

    Oe created works that often focused on political issues such as nuclear weapons. The Academy cited him as a writer "who with poetic force creates an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today."

  • Toni Morrison (1993)

    Francois Guillot  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: United States

    Influential works:

    - "Sula"
    - "The Bluest Eye"
    - "Beloved"

    Morrison wrote novels that brought multi-faceted, richly-developed black characters to the forefront of literature. The Academy cited that she, by "visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality."

  • Derek Walcott (1992)

    Pedro Rey  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: St. Lucia

    Influential works:

    - "Sea Grapes"
    - "Omeros"
    - "Ti-Jean and his Brothers"
    - "Pantomime"

    Walcott published more than 20 plays, his stories based on West Indian identity and the effects of colonial rule. He was praised for his "great luminosity, sustained by a historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment."

  • Nadine Gordimer (1991)

    Tiziana Fabi  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: South Africa

    Influential works:

    - "The Conservationist"
    - "Burger's Daughter"
    - "July's People"

    Gordimer's work dealt with racial issues, and bemoaned the immorality of South African apartheid. The Academy praised her "magnificent epic writing" as being "of very great benefit to humanity."

  • Octavio Paz (1990)

    Afp  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: Mexico

    Influential works:

    - "The Labyrinth of Solitude"
    - "Eagle or Sun?"
    - "Collected Poems, 1957 - 1987"

    Paz wrote poetry influenced by many styles and themes, including surrealism, Marxism, love, spirituality, and particularly, his experiences in India. The Academy noted that his work was "characterized by sensuous intelligence and humanistic integrity."

  • Camilo Jose Cela (1989)

    Stf  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: Spain

    Influential works:

    - "The Family of Pascual Duarte"
    - "The Hive"
    - "Christ versus Arizona"

    Cela's notable work "Christ versus Arizona" is the story of a duel, written in a single sentence that is more than 100 pages long. He won the Nobel Prize for his "rich and intensive prose, which with restrained compassion forms a challenging vision of man's vulnerability."

  • Naguib Mahfouz (1988)

    -  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Country: Egypt

    Influential works:

    • "Cairo Trilogy"
    • "Children of Gebelawi"
    • "Midaq Alley"

    Mahfouz supported Egypt's peace treaty with Israel in 1978 and ended up on an Islamic fundamentalist "death list". The Academy noted that Mahfouz, "through works rich in nuance ... has formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind."


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