What mysterious deaths and memory struggles in Chile can teach the U.S.
The week after I took my children trick-or-treating on the streets of our Philadelphia suburb turned out to be a time of ghosts in another place where I once lived: Chile. On November 5, Chile’s Interior Ministry released a public statement calling it “highly probable” that Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet, died of poisoning soon after the coup that ushered in Augusto Pinochet’s 27-year dictatorship, and not from the natural progression of the prostate cancer for which he was being treated at the time. If true, this would confirm years of suspicion that Neruda, like the singer Victor Jara and thousands of other Chileans, was a victim of Pinochet’s violent efforts to suppress political dissent.
Chile’s Interior Ministry released a public statement calling it “highly probable” that Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet, died of poisoning.
The retelling of Neruda’s death began when the poet’s former driver stepped forward in 2011 to allege that after treatment in Santiago’s Santa María clinic for his cancer, and only hours before his death, Neruda confided that he had been given a strange injection in his stomach. The path to an official investigation—which would result in the exhumation of Neruda’s corpse from his seaside grave and posthumous travel to four different forensic laboratories in as many countries—has been contentious.
Despite the Chilean government’s bold declaration, the tests thus far don’t offer conclusive evidence. The Staphylococcus aureus bacteria found in his body has no relation to cancer, but this does not conclusively prove that Neruda died from poisoning. Further tests are still needed to clarify the origins of such a potentially lethal microorganism (healthy individuals can be perfectly asymptomatic carriers of the bug), and even then we may never know for certain. For those inclined to think Neruda died of cancer—possibly accelerated by grief at seeing his country fall into the hands of a brutal dictator—and those who believe he must have been poisoned, there is no reason yet to significantly alter their version of history.