ISLA NEGRA, Chile: Chile reburied Nobel prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda’s remains Tuesday after exhuming them to determine whether he was assassinated by late dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime — a mystery that still lingers.
Three years after they were disinterred to be tested for traces of poison, Neruda’s remains were returned to his grave at his former home in the resort town of Isla Negra, facing the Pacific Ocean in line with his last wishes.
Neruda, a celebrated poet, politician, diplomat and bohemian, died in 1973 aged 69, just days after Pinochet, then the head of the Chilean army, overthrew Socialist president Salvador Allende in a bloody coup.
The writer, who was also a prominent member of the Chilean Communist party, had been preparing to flee into exile in Mexico to lead the resistance against Pinochet’s regime.
He died in a Santiago clinic where he was being treated for prostate cancer — the official cause of his death.
But doubts emerged in 2011, when his former driver and personal assistant claimed Neruda was given a mysterious injection in his chest just before he died.
Forensic scientists at the University of Murcia in Spain said last year they had identified a massive, unexplained bacterial infection in Neruda’s remains.
Experts suspect it may have been grown in a laboratory.
This has rekindled suspicions that Neruda may have been poisoned with a toxin made by Pinochet’s infamous chemical weapons expert, Eugenio Berrios.
An international team of specialists that examined Neruda’s remains is due to release their findings in May, after completing DNA analysis of the bacteria.
In February, a Chilean court ordered the poet’s remains returned to his grave. The judge told forensic analysts to keep small bone samples on hand for further tests, if needed.
The lawyer who brought the case to have the remains examined, Eduardo Contreras, told AFP that since so much time had passed, there was a risk the tests would be inconclusive.
“Even though all the evidence points to a crime, it will be technically very difficult to prove,” he said.
But “anyone who sees the thousands of volumes of evidence” will conclude that Neruda was assassinated, he added.
Pinochet, who ruled Chile for 17 years, installed a regime that killed some 3,200 leftist activists and other suspected opponents.
He died in 2006 at age 91 without ever being convicted for the crimes committed by his regime.
Neruda won the Nobel prize in 1971 “for a poetry that with the action of an elemental force brings alive a continent’s destiny and dreams,” in the words of the award committee.
He is remembered especially for his sensual, longing love poems.
His coffin, draped in a red, white and blue Chilean flag, lay in state in the Congress in Santiago on Monday.
It was then transferred to his scenic, boat-shaped house on the Pacific coast, where some 20 family members and officials at the foundation that handles Neruda’s works watched his flag-draped casket being lowered back into the ground.
A small group of Communist party activists watched from a distance, breaking into chants honoring “comrade Pablo Neruda.”
He was laid to rest alongside his third wife and muse, the singer Matilde Urrutia.
Fans flocked to his grave after the official ceremony to play music, recite his poetry and discuss his legacy.
“This isn’t a funeral for us, it’s the opposite,” said the head of the Pablo Neruda Foundation, Raul Bulnes.
“To return to Isla Negra is to return to the sea. Watching the sea isn’t dying, it’s returning to life, especially for a poet.”
Neruda’s remains have now been reburied three times.
He was first buried at Santiago General Cemetery, then moved a year later to a different plot in the sprawling burial ground in the capital.
In 1992, after democracy was restored, president Patricio Aylwin, who died last week, ordered a proper funeral at Isla Negra, where Neruda had asked to be buried — and where his remains now lie once again. AFP