Pablo Neruda (1904- 1973) was born Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes Basoalto in Temuco, a frontier town, an outpost above Patagonia. Neruda was a true literary prodigy and began to fill up notebooks with his poems as a young kid. He read Victor Hugo and Maxim Gorky and translated Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire. At 14-years-old, his first poem was published. He studied French at the University of Chile, where he wore a black suit and cape while strolling around Santiago.
He wrote in a variety of styles including surrealist poems, historical epics, overtly political manifestos, memoirs, and erotic poems such as the ones in his 1924 collection Twenty Poems Of Love And A Song Of Despair (1924). In 1971 Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez called him the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language. Neruda wrote in green ink, his personal color of hope.
On July 15, 1945, at Pacaembu Stadium in São Paulo, Brazil, he read to 100,000 fans. During his lifetime, Neruda occupied many diplomatic positions and served a stint as a senator for the Chilean Communist Party.
When Conservative Chilean President González Videla outlawed communism in Chile in 1948, a warrant was issued for Neruda’s arrest. Friends hid him for months in a house basement in the Chilean port of Valparaíso. Later, Neruda escaped into exile through a mountain pass and into Argentina.
Years later, Neruda was a close collaborator to socialist President Salvador Allende. When Neruda returned to Chile after his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Allende invited him to read before 170,000 people.
On July 18, 1936, General Francisco Franco‘s fascist generals launched a coup against the Republican government of Spain starting the Spanish Civil War. Two days later Neruda and his friend, gay poet Federico Lorca, were supposed to meet in Madrid. Lorca never showed up. He had been captured by the fascists and executed for being a poet, a queer, and a liberal activist. His murder was for Neruda “the most painful in the course of a long struggle“. Neruda wrote Ode To Federico García Lorca:
If I could weep with fear in a solitary house,
if I could take out my eyes and eat them,
I would do it for your morning orange-tree voice
and for your poetry that comes forth shouting
Spanish refugees fleeing into France became a humanitarian crisis. The French wanted them out. Neruda was the Chilean ambassador to Spain. After securing support back home from Pedro Aquirre Cerda, the liberal president Neruda had just worked to elect, the poet organized a monumental effort to bring thousands of refugees into Chile.
In 1940, Neruda is named by Cerda’s Popular Front government to be ambassador to Mexico. There he made new friends like painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and reconnected with many intellectuals from Spain.
When the Nazis invaded Russia, Neruda joined the Committee to Aid the Russians. He supported the miners’ organizing efforts and wrote about their struggles. The mine workers elected Neruda as their senator. But, by 1947 the chill of the cold war was already being felt in Chile, and the President, Gabriel González Videla, cracked-downed on the left, a group whose votes helped put him into office.
Neruda accused Videla of selling out to the USA. Videla crushed strikes and imprisoned hundreds of labor leaders and intellectuals in concentration camps. One of those camps would be used by a right wing regime just 26 years later.
In 1949, he participated in the Congress of Partisans of Peace in Paris. There, Pablo Picasso announced to the Congress that he had a surprise and dramatically revealed Neruda to the distinguished crowd which included Rivera, Langston Hughes and Charlie Chaplin, and the great Italian writer, Italo Calvino, the amazing American athlete/ singer/actor, and Civil Rights activist, Paul Robeson, and the African-American scholar, W.E.B. DuBois.
The Chilean government denied the news that Neruda was in Europe and said they were hot on his trail. Neruda told the press:
Say that I am not Pablo Neruda, but another Chilean who writes poetry, fights for freedom, and is also called Neruda.
In 1966, playwright Arthur Miller invited Neruda to NYC. His visa was at first denied, but because of pressure from American writers putting pressure on the State Department, he finally arrived. Neruda said that he:
…learned on the spot that the North American enemies of our peoples were also enemies of the North American people.
For Chile’s 1970 election, the different parties of the left organized under the banner of the Popular Unity Coalation. The Socialist Allende was running once again, and as the left rallied behind him, Neruda pledged him votes. Despite the CIA’s interference in the election, Allende was democratically elected President of Chile. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger stated:
I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.
Allende honored his friend Neruda by naming him Ambassador to France.
President Richard Nixon blockaded Chilean copper exports, the mainstay of the economy. When the right wing military took over the government of Chile, in coup d’état financed by the USA, tens of thousands of Chileans were taken and tortured. A decade of abductions and disappearances began. Once again, Nerudas friends were being killed by fascists.
Neruda was hospitalized with cancer at the time of the Chilean coup d’état led by Augusto Pinochet. Three days after being hospitalized, Neruda died. Now, experts believe that he was was poisoned by dictator Pinochet’s regime and did not die of cancer.
Already a legend in life, Neruda’s death reverberated around the world. Pinochet denied permission to transform Neruda’s funeral into a public event. However, a million grieving Chileans disobeyed the curfew and crowded the streets.