Pablo Neruda, Chile's Nobel Prize-winning poet, would have been a powerful voice in exile against the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. But that all changed just 24 hours before Mr. 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. Some Chileans instead suspect foul play at the hands of Gen. Pinochet's regime.
Those doubts could get a public airing as Chile's Communist Party asks that Mr. Neruda's body be exhumed for testing to address long-simmering suspicions that the poet was poisoned.
The judge investigating his death could rule at any moment that the exhumation go forward.
Communist Party lawyer Eduardo Contreras said he believes the poet was murdered, and he is supported by Manuel Araya, who was Mr. Neruda's driver, bodyguard and assistant in the year leading up to his death. Mr. Neruda's widow and his own foundation, on the other hand, have rejected the theory.
Mr. Araya contends that a doctor gave him a fatal injection at the Santa Maria clinic or ordered somebody to do so. “Coincidentally,” Mr. Araya said in sarcastic manner, a doctor named 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.”
At the same Santa Maria clinic, 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 Mr. Frei's death. The case is ongoing, and Mr. Frei's body has been exhumed. One of the doctors questioned in the case, though not accused: Sergio Draper.
The Associated Press was unable to be reached the doctor for comment, after contacting the clinic where Mr. Neruda was treated and one of Chile's main medical schools.
Dr. Draper has denied the allegation, saying he was only following the instructions of Mr. Neruda's regular physician, Vargas Salazar, to help relieve the patient's pain by giving him a dipirona.
“I ordered that he be given an injection prescribed by his physician,” Dr. Draper said. “I was nothing more than a messenger. It's outrageous that we are constantly under suspicion.”
Mr. Neruda and Mr. Allende symbolized a turbulent, confrontational era in Chilean history, and their deaths have long been shrouded by suspicion. Authorities recently exhumed Mr. Allende's body and confirmed that the former president committed suicide rather than be captured as troops moved in on the presidential palace.