For Chilean Woman, Election Signifies a Time Without Fear

Cecilia Martinez

If the division between leftist and right-wing politics dogs the United States, Chile suffers the same  condition, sometimes in a most intimate fashion, as families try to find a way to keep themselves together, even if it means having to resettle far from home, and even if those they bitterly oppose politically still feel bound by blood.

For Cecilia Martinez, today’s presidential election in her native South American country signifies an inflection point. Her preferred candidate, progressive Gabriel Boric – a former student activist – faces Jose Antonio Kast, a far-right conservative, with the promise of getting Chile out from under a deep economic schism, and upholding a commitment to the country’s poor that for Martinez truly began with the 1970 presidential campaign of socialist Dr. Salvador Allende.

As a young woman, Martinez organized for Allende in that historic election, helping to catapult him to the presidency. But Allende’s designs on nationalizing Chilean copper to create government programs and economic opportunities for his countrymen offended people in high places. A military coup backed by the United States toppled Allende’s freely elected government in 1973 and undertook purges throughout the country that left thousands dead and missing.

In the years that followed, Martinez lost her son, a student activist killed while protesting the oppressive Pinochet regime. To save her remaining children, she left Chile with the help of a family member on the right, who lived in the United States. It was a difficult decision to come here, particularly given the history of U.S. intervention in her country. On a recent trip back to Chile with her husband, he succumbed to COVID-19 during a nationwide lockdown, and Martinez returned to North America to be with those closest to her: her children and grandchildren.

Now, she observes the election in Chile from afar, but no less dispassionately.

“I want justice,” Martinez told InsiderNJ. “My son died and we never received an explanation from the government. The administration of Pinochet took no responsibility for telling us what happened and gave no consideration.”

The late Pinochet’s widow died last week. Like many Chileans dedicated to righting the wrongs of the right-wing regime and its spawn,  Martinez felt a certain measure of peace seeing the Pinochets finally gone. But she wants her fellow Chileans to vote for Boric as a continuing statement of commitment to the cause she began with Allende. The poetic justice of his having been a student activist, like her late son, and the social discord marking deep social divisions underscored during the pandemic, inevitably take her back through the years, to the beginning.

“I have many memories of that time [the Allende election], as I participated with poor people in an election; people who had nothing except the hope of opportunity,” Martinez said. “The time of Allende was different. Many years have passed. In some ways that economic divide between rich and poor has grown, and yet there is one critical difference, and that is all the difference. The people now do not have the fear that they had then. During the time of Allende, and afterwards, people seeking economic justice had the fear of being killed. But that fear doesn’t exist anymore.”

What does she think will happen in the election today?

“I think Boric will win,” Martinez said, reflecting on the unpopularity of the administration of billionaire conservative President Sebastián Piñera Echenique and sensing a populist uprising in the leftist’s favor. “I think the things Allende was fighting for will go forward with Boric, and without fear.”

In many ways, the days spent in the United States made Martinez miss Chile, and yearn to be free of the country she blames in part for the misfortunes that befell not only her native land but her family. Yet, she said, “I think there are things also with my life – the force of faith – that have given me strength, and though I feel, as always, very much to the left, I have my family, and the people of Chile will decide.”

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