Long-time Communist Party chief Santiago Carrillo, who played an important role in Spain's post-Franco return to democracy, died Tuesday at his home in Madrid, his family told Efe. He was 97.

The retired politician's health had worsened over the past week, after repeated hospitalizations in recent months.

Carrillo, who was born in 1915 in the northern region of Asturias, joined the Young Socialists at 13 and became a member of the Communist Party in 1936, the first year of the civil war between the Republican government and rebel soldiers led by Gen. Francisco Franco.

Franco defeated the Republic in 1939 and Carrillo began what was to be nearly four decades of exile spent in the Soviet Union, the United States, Argentina, Mexico, Algeria and France.

He returned secretly to Spain in 1976, after Franco's death but before the legalization of the Communist Party, and was elected to Parliament in 1977.

During his time as a member of the Madrid Defense Board during the civil war, he was blamed for the massacre of mutinous soldiers, but Carrillo always maintained that it was the work of rogue elements.

Carrillo, who left the Communist Party in 1985, devoted his later years to writing books and articles and giving speeches.

During the failed coup of Feb. 23, 1981, Carrillo was one of the three politicians, along with then-Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez and his deputy, who defiantly remained in their seats when the leader of the abortive putsch, Col. Antonio Tejero Molina, stormed Parliament and ordered all the lawmakers to lie on the floor.

Carrillo is considered one of the architects of Spain's transition to democracy for his outstanding role as a communist representative in the negotiations that led to the "Moncloa pacts," the accords among the country's political forces that outlined the path to democracy. EFE