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Was poet Pablo Neruda murdered?

Former driver's testimony has led to court inquiry into allegations that the Chilean Nobel Prize winner was killed while waiting to go into exile

Pablo Neruda's death certificate says the beloved poet died from prostate cancer on September 23, 1973 - just less than two weeks after his friend and fellow Marxist, President Salvador Allende, was deposed in a bloody coup. But nearly 40 years after his death, and the events that plunged Chile into one of the darkest periods of its modern history, Neruda's former driver has created a commotion by coming forward to charge that the poet was murdered under the orders of dictator Augusto Pinochet.

"After the September 11 coup, he was planning to go into exile with his wife Matilde. The plan was to try to overthrow the dictator within three months from abroad. He was going to ask the world to help overthrow Pinochet but before he could board a plane the plotters took advantage of the fact that he had been admitted to a hospital, and that's where they injected him in his stomach with poison," claims Manuel del Carmen Araya Osorio, a 65-year-old taxi driver.

His version, which was first published in the well-respected Mexican magazine Proceso, provoked the Chilean Communist Party, of which the poet was a member, to demand a judicial investigation into the causes of Neruda's death.

Investigating Judge Mario Carroza has gathered more than 500 documents concerning the allegations, and will decide whether to give the order for Neruda's body to be exhumed. Carroza has carried out recent inquiries into the deaths of Allende and former President Eduardo Frei and is also looking into the murder of the father of ex-President Michelle Bachelet.

Neruda's former chauffeur, who lives in the seaside city of San Antonio, some 109 kilometers from the capital Santiago, met the Nobel Prize-winning poet in 1972 after he was given the task to ferry Neruda around by fellow Chilean Communist Party members.

Neruda, who was appointed ambassador to France by Allende, had returned to Chile after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. In the 1930s, Neruda served as consul and cultural attaché in Barcelona, and lived for a brief time in Madrid with his second wife, the Argentinean artist Delia del Carril.

Living with third wife Matilde in the picturesque town of Isla Negra, Neruda, weighing some 100 pounds, never stopped writing or receiving visitors, Araya recalls. In fact, Neruda finished his biography, Confieso que he vivido (or, I confess that I have lived), on September 14, 1973, nine days before his death and surrounded by military officers who had come to search his home and keep him under watch following the coup.

Mexican President Luis Echeverría sent his ambassador to Neruda's home on September 16 to offer him and Matilde asylum; the poet accepted. According to Araya, Neruda traveled by ambulance to Santiago on September 19 along with his wife. The driver followed them in his own Fiat. A trip that usually took two hours took six that day, after they were stopped by military officers in search of weapons in the vehicles.

"They stopped us more than once. It was very humiliating," he said.

Neruda was admitted to the Santa María Hospital in Santiago to await his flight to Mexico, which was scheduled for September 22. "He was fine and spoke normally. The only thing he couldn't do was remain standing."

He asked Araya and Matilde to fetch some things for him back at Isla Negra to take to Mexico. While they were there, Neruda phoned them to return because he wasn't feeling well. "When we got back we found him swollen and red," Araya claims, adding that the physician on duty told them he was given an injection during the night.

The doctor asked Araya to go to the outskirts of the city to find some medicine, which he did even though he found it an odd request. While he was driving, two vehicles intercepted him and officers shot him in the knee before taking him to the National Stadium, which became a gigantic holding pen for Pinochet's opponents.

Neruda died of a heart attack the following evening at age 69.