Gladys Marín

Communist opponent of Pinochet

Gladys Marín helped the Chilean Communist Party become one of the most effective political forces in Latin America. Unfailingly loyal to the Soviets, she could not stop her party's eclipse as the Soviet Union disappeared.

Gladys Marín Millié, politician: born Curepto, Chile 16 July 1941; Under-Secretary, Chilean Communist Party 1984-94, General Secretary 1994-2002, President 2002-05; married 1963 Jorge Muñoz (presumed dead 1976; two sons); died Santiago 6 March 2005.

Gladys Marín helped the Chilean Communist Party become one of the most effective political forces in Latin America. Unfailingly loyal to the Soviets, she could not stop her party's eclipse as the Soviet Union disappeared.

Marín stood out as brave and attractive in a party which was often seriously short of such people. "I've met many Communists in the world and they seldom laugh," remarked Senator Gabriel Valdés, Chile's former Christian Democrat foreign minister. "I found her very gay, friendly and very feminine. I found her enchanting; she was very kind."

Gladys Marín Millié was born in 1941 near Curicó, a town 200 kilometres south of the capital, the third of four daughters of Adriana, a primary-school teacher, and her erratic peasant husband Heraclio. The family moved northward and she went to school at Talagante, not far from Santiago. "We had hot baths on Saturdays," she recalled. There she joined the Christian youth movement and became president of the town's Catholic Action. She decided to follow her mother into teaching and went to Teacher Training College No 2 in Santiago, where she was prominent in the student teachers' organisation in a fight to improve teaching methods. In 1998 she recalled,

I was a wild country kid, from Talagante, from the hills . . . I was very Catholic Action. I had a social conscience and wanted to do things . . . I was a rebel, after adventure . . . I went to see the gypsies and gave them ball-point pens so they'd tell my fortune.

After receiving her teacher's diploma in 1957 Marín joined the staff of School No 130 for mentally retarded children sited within the capital's main mental hospital. At 17 she decided to join the Young Communists at a time when the Party was recovering from a period in clandestinity and before she was 20 she had been elected to their central committee. In 1963 she married Jorge Muñoz, a mining engineer whom she met when doing voluntary work in a slum. Two years later she joined the Party full-time and was elected General Secretary of the Young Communists at a period when they were vocal in support of Cuba and of an end to the Vietnam War.

She worked on the electoral campaign of Salvador Allende, a member of the staunchly Chilean-centred Socialist Party, who became President in 1970. He led Unidad Popular or Popular Unity, an often fractious six-party coalition, including the Communists. At 23 she was elected to the Chamber of Deputies for a poor Santiago constituency, was re-elected for a second term and in 1973 for a third.

But Augusto Pinochet's military coup of 11 September abolished party politics. She went into hiding amid a reign of terror and was within days named one of the regime's 100 most wanted persons. She was in constant fear of capture, torture and death. Shortly after the putsch the house where she was hiding in disguise was searched by the army. Putting on her wig Marín crouched behind a cot where a baby was crying: a soldier entered the room but did not notice her.

In November 1973 she obtained asylum in the Dutch embassy, from whose windows she saw her husband for the last time. She had to wait there eight months till the military gave her a safe-conduct to leave for the Netherlands, whence she departed to the Soviet Union.

From there she travelled widely, notably to Buenos Aires in September 1974, on a mission to General Carlos Prats, Pinochet's predecessor as army commander-in-chief who was living in exile, to warn him that Pinochet was planning his assassination. Four days later, he and his wife were killed when Pinochet had his car blown up in the Argentine capital.

In 1976 Marín learnt her husband had been detained in Chile - betrayed with several more Party leaders at a secret meeting. He is today presumed dead, though his corpse has not been found, so under Chilean law Pinochet stands charged with his kidnapping.

Two years later, in Moscow, Marín was groomed to return secretly to Chile. She had her gall bladder removed, lest she had to undergo an operation in Chile during which she might be identified. "I'm lucky to have kept my teeth because they wanted to change them for me," she added in her 2002 book La Vida es Hoy ("Life is Today"). Coached in Spanish history, she passed herself off as Spanish, assuming a Spanish accent, dressed in Spanish clothes and carrying a suitcase bought in Spain. Her mouth was filled with pads to alter her facial appearance and with more round her bust and hips. With much trepidation she passed a police examination on the bus across the Andes from Argentina.

Promoting the Party in secret, Marín was elected its under-secretary in 1984. She continued to hew to a pro-Soviet line, oblivious or uncaring about the changes in the Soviet Union or about Eurocommunism. She fitted the description put about by detractors, who jeered that rain in Moscow meant the Chilean Communists reached for their umbrellas in Santiago.

Four years later she was elected the Party's general secretary. Manipulating the rules and to the disgust of many members she obtained successive periods of office, and was named Party President in 2002. With Pinochet gone and the Party legalised, she stood unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1997. But support for the Party was ebbing away. In 1998 she sought the presidency for the Communists, rejecting electoral alliances. She polled a derisory 3.19 per cent, much less than the Party had achieved in the 1993 polls.

That same year she had the satisfaction of suing Pinochet for murder. This was the first of a flood of actions which today see the former dictator indicted in many countries, bereft of allies and with his corrupt practices and tax-dodging exposed to public view.

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