Millions mourn Chilean heroine

Thousands of Chileans poured into the streets to pay tribute to Chile’s fiery Communist leader, Gladys Marin, who died March 6 at age 63 after a long battle with brain cancer. Crowds estimated at half a million lined the streets outside La Moneda government palace in Santiago March 8 as her funeral procession passed by.

Marin, chairwoman of the Communist Party of Chile, was revered as a symbol of the resistance to the bloody dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, and as the embodiment of Chile’s left.

The Chilean government decreed a two-day period of national mourning. Marin’s body lay in state in the old National Congress building, where she served as a legislator. Some 500,000 Chileans lined up to pay their last respects.

Marin, the only woman heading a political party in Chile, was respected by friend and foe alike for her courage and firmness in upholding her communist ideals, undaunted by personal and political tragedy.

Thirty-two years ago, La Moneda was the scene of the U.S.-backed coup that overthrew the elected Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende and installed Pinochet. Pinochet unleashed a reign of terror, with mass arrests, kidnappings, torture and executions. Thousands simply “disappeared.” Among the disappeared was Marin’s husband, Jorge Muñoz, a member of the Communist Party’s political commission. He was arrested in 1976 and never seen again.

Marin worked against the Pinochet regime from the moment it came to power. As the coup was under way, she rushed to a radio station and called on the Chilean people to resist.

After the 17-year dictatorship ended in 1990, she was a leader of the struggle to bring Pinochet to justice. In 1998, she was the first person to file suit against Pinochet for his crimes. When Marin demanded that Pinochet be tried, calling him a “psychopath who gained power using intrigue, treason and crime,” Pinochet filed suit and she was arrested and jailed. After mass protests she was released two days later. The Chilean Supreme Court eventually revoked Pinochet’s immunity from prosecution and he is now finally facing criminal charges.

Marin was actively involved in the continuing fight to change the Pinochet constitution and laws imposed by the dictatorship — including a two-party electoral system that makes it impossible for all political viewpoints to be represented.

She became the first woman to run for the presidency, as the candidate of the left in 1998. The previous year she ran for the Senate.

At the time of the 1973 coup, Marin was the leader of the Communist Youth of Chile, and a member of the country’s Parliament. After the coup, following a decision of the Chilean Communist Party, she went underground for several months and then sought asylum at the Dutch Embassy. After eight months of worldwide protests, Pinochet was forced to allow her safe conduct out of the country. She left Chile to build international solidarity with the Chilean democratic movement.

Marin returned to Chile in 1978 to lead the underground movement and build the Communist Party. She was one of the leaders of the first large protests against Pinochet in the 1980s, often facing police tear gas and water cannons.

Marin joined the Communist Party at age 16. She was born in the city of Curepto and lived there until her mother, a schoolteacher, moved the family to Talagante, a town just southwest of Santiago, after her father, a farmer, left. In Talagante, she became a leader in the Catholic youth organization.

As a youth and student activist, she met members of the Communist Youth of Chile, and became a member herself in 1958 after she went to Santiago to go to school. Continuing her student activism, she was elected president of the Federation of Teachers College Student Unions.

In 1963 Marin was elected general secretary of the Communist Youth. Two years later Marin was elected to the nation’s Parliament. She was re-elected twice.

After the 1970 victory of the Popular Unity slate, headed by Allende, Marin worked in Parliament to raise wages, freeze prices, halve the unemployment rate, create public works jobs and nationalize the copper industry as a resource for the Chilean people. Her legislative term was ended by the 1973 fascist coup.

For a period of at least 13 years, while she was living in exile and engaged in underground work, Marin was separated from her sons, Alvaro and Rodrigo. Extraordinary precautions had to be taken for her to be able to see them, crossing secretly into neighboring Argentina.

After Marin’s cancer was discovered in 2003, she went to Stockholm for surgery. She spent months in Cuba receiving therapy, then returned to Chile, but was forced to go back to Cuba for another operation. She returned to Chile for the last time in December 2004.

Even while undergoing treatment, Marin played an active part in Chilean politics, writing articles and letters, holding press conferences, and meeting with her Party leadership.

While in Cuba for treatment, she wrote a second volume of her autobiography. In addition to her mother and assassinated husband, she dedicated the book to those who through “dignity, optimism and struggle will make sure that another world is possible.”

j.a.cruz@comcast.netclick here for Spanish text