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Panel of experts set to clear up mystery surrounding Pablo Neruda’s death

By Maria M.Mur

Santiago, Feb 2 (EFE).- Nearly 50 years after the death of famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, an international panel of forensic experts are to reveal Friday if the 1971 Nobel literature laureate passed away due to natural causes or was poisoned by agents of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s newly installed right-wing dictatorship.

Those 15 experts from Canada, Denmark and the United States, who arrived in Santiago on Jan. 24, are expected to clarify the origin of the “clostridium botulinum” bacterium found in one of the poet’s molars after his remains were exhumed a decade ago at his home in Isla Negra, a coastal area 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Santiago.

That bacterium – which in low-oxygen conditions produces toxins that can cause botulism, a potentially fatal neurologic illness – is generally found in soil, dust and river or sea sediments.

The investigators’ job, therefore, is to determine if the sample found in Neruda’s tooth had been altered in a laboratory and later injected into him by a third party.

“A quantity incompatible with life was found … Finally we’re going to learn the truth about his death,” which occurred 12 days after the Sept. 11, 1973, coup that toppled democratically elected leftist President Salvador Allende, Rodolfo Reyes, Neruda’s nephew, told Efe.

“We’re on the cusp of bringing an end to a transcendental investigation,” Mario Carroza, a Chilean Supreme Court justice who until 2020 had headed up the probe into the death of Chile’s most famous poet.

The investigation began in 2011 after Chile’s Communist Party, of which the poet and one-term senator was a member, filed a complaint challenging the version of Pinochet’s 1973-1990 dictatorship, which listed metastatic prostate cancer and a related wasting syndrome known as cancer cachexia as the cause of his death.

That complaint was based on the testimony of Neruda’s driver, Manuel Araya, who said the poet was poisoned by the regime while receiving cancer treatment at Santiago’s Santa Maria Clinic.

Araya was one of the last people to see Neruda alive along with the poet’s third wife, Matilde Urrutia, who “always said his (prostate cancer) was under control and that the urologist had given him around five years to live,” historian and journalist Mario Amoros told Efe.

The author of the biography “Neruda. El principe de los poetas” (Neruda: Prince of Poets), Amoros recalled that the Nobel literature laureate had planned to travel to Mexico a few days before his death at the age of 69 and that as an exile “would have been the great enemy of Pinochet’s.”

“Neruda was a very dangerous man whether in Chile or away from Chile. After the death of Allende and (theater director, poet, singer-songwriter and Communist political activist) Victor Jara, there was no other person who was such a unifying figure,” Reyes added.

Three separate expert panels have been involved in an investigation that has been beset by different snags, from a lack of cooperation by the clinic to difficulties in securing government financing for scientific testing in foreign laboratories, the family says.

“The pandemic also caused a big delay,” Reyes lamented.

A big breakthrough in the investigation occurred in 2017, when a second panel of experts detected the “clostridium botulinum” in a sample of Neruda’s remains (the molar) and concluded that the author’s condition was not life-threatening when he entered the clinic.

Another major development was the discovery that no contemporaneous record exists in the College of Physicians establishing the existence of the enigmatic “Doctor Price,” the doctor on duty at the Santa Maria Clinic at the time of Neruda’s death.

Press coverage has been lukewarm in Chile in the lead-up to Friday’s revelations, which Amoros attributes to “a lack of interest among certain media in reporting on the true magnitude of the dictatorship’s repression.”

Besides the controversy surrounding his death, the author of the lines “Me gusta cuando callas” (I like you when you’re quiet) has also come under heavy criticism in recent years from Chile’s powerful feminist movement.

The late poet, who was born Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes Basoalto in Parral, Chile, in 1904 and adopted his pseudonym as a teenager, has been called out by activists not only for sexist verses but also for abandoning his daughter and her mother and even confessing in his memoirs about committing a rape.

Soledad Falabella, a professor at the University of Chile, told Efe that Neruda’s works came under scrutiny amid Chile’s so-called “Feminist May,” when activists occupied several universities in that South American country.

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