Pablo Neruda's body was exhumed Monday in Chile, where authorities are probing whether the socialist poet was murdered. Documents released Monday by WikiLeaks indicate that the Nobel Prize winner was in poor health before his death, and that he had agreed to live in exile in Mexico. Some documents suggest concern about Neruda's safety.
Neruda died Sept. 23, 1973, reportedly of prostate cancer, 12 days after the Sept. 11 coup by General Augusto Pinochet that overthrew democratically elected socialist leader Salvador Allende, who was supported by Neruda.
An Apr. 2, 1973, State Department memo from Paris says, "Just received letter from Pablo Neruda reporting that latter had resigned as [Ambassador] to France, but would continue as member UNESCO [executive board]. Neruda further wrote he was not in good health and would not be able to attend spring session of board (April 25-May 12) but planned to attend fall session, which opens late in September."
Two years ago Neruda's former driver said that the poet received an injection that caused a rapid deterioration of his health before he died, the Los Angeles Times reports. A Chilean judge ordered the exhumation in February.
A State Department memo from Rome, dated September 27, 1973, says that Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov made an "appeal to Santiago to respect liberty and safety of Pablo Neruda," presumably between the time of the coup and Neruda's death. The memo quotes Sakharov, via a news report, as saying, "The loss of this great man would darken for a long time the era of rebirth and consolidation announced by the Chilean government."
An October 1, 1973, memo to the Santiago embassy from U.S.-based State Department staff clips an eye-opening Newsweek article titled "Slaughterhouse in Santiago," which paints a vivid image of the coup's bloody aftermath:
Pablo Neruda, Chile's Nobel Prize winning poet, was dead of cancer, and even as his body was lowered into its grave, his countrymen set about trying to murder his words. Books of all kinds, not only Neruda's but those by Mao and Marx and Marcuse, were seized by the tens of thousands from homes, bookstores and libraries and then fed to the bonfires in the streets of Santiago. And the military junta that has ruled Chile for three weeks didn't stop there. Chilean universities, once proud bastions of independence, were purged of suspected leftists, and ordinary people learned to dread the midnight knock on the door. All that was bad enough, but Newsweek correspondent John Barnes discovered last week that the reign of terror has already gone much further than most people thought. Below, Barnes's report:
The military junta will not admit that there have been mass executions since the overthrow of Salvador Allende's Marxist government. 'We have executed perhaps eight people since then for shooting at troops,' Col. Pedro Ewing told newsmen. But that simply is not true. Last week, I slopped through a side door into the Santiago city morgue, flashing my junta press pass with all the impatient authority of a high official. One hundred and fifty dead bodies were laid out on the ground floor, awaiting identification by family members. Upstairs, I passed through a swing door and there in a dimly lit corridor lay at least 50 more bodies, squeezed one against another, their heads propped up against the wall. They were all naked.
Most had been shot at close range under the chin. Some had been machine-gunned in the body. Their chests had been slit open and sewn together grotesquely in what presumably had been a pro forma autopsy. They were all young and, judging from the roughness of their hands, all from the working class. A couple of them were girls, distinguishable among the massed bodies only by the curves of their breasts. Most of their heads had been crushed. I remained for perhaps two minutes at most, then left the building.
An October 6, 1973, memo quoted a speech delivered by Mexico's foreign minister to the U.N. General Assembly. "When my country learned of the horrors in [Chile] we invited the great poet of Isla Negra to reside in Mexico and, perhaps, restore his precarious health. The invitation was accepted," said the foreign minister, "but, unfortunately, it could not be complied with."
Only one memo explicitly references theories about the U.S. government's possible role in Neruda's death. An October 10, 1973, memo from Lisbon, Portugal, says: "Opposition press has coupled lamentations over coup with eulogies of Pablo Neruda. One paper repeated charges of involvement of [U.S.] ambassador [to Chile Nathaniel] Davis." Davis downplayed U.S. involvement in the coup in his book "The Last Two Years of Salvador Allende." The ambassador, who died in 2011, unsuccessfully sued Universal Pictures in the 1980s over the film "Missing," which made him appear complicit in the death of an American journalist during the coup.