Politics in the Life of Pablo Neruda


Travelers who decide to learn about the country’s modern history before the start of their Chile tours will encounter Pablo Neruda and his poetry. Neruda knew poverty from an early age, born into a Chilean economy in ruins and a rigid caste system that allowed no upward mobility. Raised in the La Araucania region of southern Chile surrounded by disenfranchised indigenous peoples, the seeds for Neruda’s political philosophies were sown. He remained a lifelong crusader for social justice and a better life for his people.

As his reputation as a poet grew, Neruda also made a name for himself as a diplomat, serving as Consul in Burma, Ceylon, Java, Singapore, Buenos Aires, Barcelona and Madrid between 1927 and 1935. As Consul to Loyalist Spain in Paris at the start of the Spanish Civil War, he organized an International Writers’ Congress to show support for the Spanish Republic, and helped over two thousand citizens flee the tyranny of Franco by escaping to Chile. He wrote about their plight in his poem, El Fuego cruel (Cruel Fire).

Neruda returned to Chile in 1939 and was named Consul General to Mexico the following year. Here he met the country’s famous muralists, Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, all like-minded political activists. After being attacked by Nazi sympathizers for his political beliefs in Cuernavaca, he traveled south through Central and South America, stopping in Panama, Bolivia and Peru.

The Communist Party had been established in Chile in 1922 and officially recognized in 1931. Neruda joined in 1945 and gained a seat in the Chilean Senate. Though he had served as Gonzalez Videla’s national campaign manager in his successful bid for the presidency, Neruda publicly criticized his crackdown on free speech before the Chilean Senate. This act of defiance caused the Chilean Supreme Court to remove Neruda from office, order his arrest and ban him from the Communist Party in 1948. He avoided prison by hiding in various locations over many months. After fleeing across the Andes into Argentina on horseback, he wrote on the wall of one of his hideouts in San Martin de los Andes, “Goodbye, my country, I am leaving, but I take you with me.” Three decades later, he described his escape from Chile in his 1971 Nobel Prize acceptance address, Hacia la ciudad esplendida (Toward the Splendid City).

Argentina’s government at the time made that country a risky place to remain. Using the Guatemalan passport of a friend he resembled, he traveled by ship to France, arriving in 1949. Pablo Picasso helped him to renew his own passport, allowing him to remain in Europe. When Neruda moved on to Italy, the Chilean government pressured authorities to oust him, prompting an historian to offer him his villa in Capri. Here Neruda and his lover, Matilde, lived a blissful existence for several months. Los versos del capitan (The Captain’s Verses 1951-1952) were completed during his stay on Capri.

After receiving amnesty by the newly elected Carlos Ibanez, Neruda returned to Chile in 1952 and was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1953. Unlike some who distanced themselves from Communism when the atrocities of WWII were revealed, Neruda remained a true believer in the philosophy’s ability to bring about change for the good of the people.

In 1970, Neruda was nominated for president on the Communist Party ticket but withdrew his candidacy to support to Salvador Allende whose Unidad Popular Party formed a coalition of the Communists, Socialists and Radical parties. Controversial from the start, Allende nationalized the American-owned copper companies in 1971. Though Neruda’s health was declining, he continued his political writings, including Cancion de la gesta (“Song of Protest”) and Inciacion al Nixonicide y alabanza de la Revolucion Chilena (“A Call for the Destruction of Richard Nixon and Praise for the Chilean Revolution”) after the American government ended aid to Chile and prevented the country from receiving loans from other sources.

Lying in bed at Isla Negra, Neruda listened in shock and despair to the radio announcement of the coup and to Allende’s farewell speech September 11. The next day he developed a fever. With his physicians among the thousands who had been arrested, Neruda languished at home until going by ambulance to a Santiago clinic, police searching the vehicle at road stops along the way. He died September 23, 1973.

Southern Explorations offers many options for travel to Chile, including Patagonia hiking tours, Chile wine tours in the country’s central regions.