Visiting the Cemetario Generale

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During most of my day in Santiago de Chile I was snapping pictures like a madman. I put the camera away when I went to visit Santiago's General Cemetery. The tombs in the cemetery house many of Chile's great historical figures, but I had come to see two things. I wanted to visit the tomb of Salvador Allende, and I wanted to see the monument to the disappeared, detained, and executed.


What I saw needs a little bit of historical context. The best place to get that context is probably a history book. I can recommend "A History of Chile, 1808-2002" by Simon Collier and Willam F. Sater. The Church Report on US Covert Action in Chile 1963-1973 is worth reading as well. Isabel Allende's novel "House of the Spirits" is set in Chile in the era when much of this occurred, and the events in the novel revolve around the historical events that led to the coup.

On the assumption that you aren't going to immediately go read about Chilean history, I'm going to summarize what I learned on this web page.

Unlike many latin american countries, Chile has a long democratic tradition. Most of the governments since the mid-1800s have been at least nominally democratic. There were interludes of military intervention in government, typically during periods of severe economic problems, but Chile always returned to democratic rule within a few years.

In 1970, Salvador Allende, a socialist, was elected President of Chile. The US government was strongly opposed to a socialist government in latin america. Within a few months Allende's economic policies had angered economic elites both inside and outside of Chile.

Dissidents within Chile, with US backing, began a campaign of economic disruption against the Allende government. The policies of Allende's government reduced the efficiency of many formerly productive industries. Foreign investment came to a virtual halt. Strikes crippled transportation within Chile.

First there were shortages of goods and food. Then there was violence in the streets.

On September 11th, 1973, the armed forces launched a coup. Allende was trapped inside the presidential palace. He had time to address the Chilean people, and I've put transcripts of his radio address to the nation in both english and spanish on The official histories conclude that Allende committed suicide in the palace. I believe he was killed.

After the coup, General Augusto Pinochet took power. During 16 long years in power, thousands of people were kidnapped, tortured, and killed. In many cases people simply disappeared and were never heard from again. Tens of thousands of others were arrested and detained. Hundreds of thousands fled the country.

In 1990, Chile returned to democratic rule.

After Pinochet left power, a truth and reconciliation commission began to investigate what had occurred during Pinochet's years in power. Allende's body was recovered from the tomb where it had been hidden and moved to Santiago's General Cemetery. The General Cemetery also contains a memorial to the "disappeared" (desparecidos), detained, and executed. That is the memorial I came to see.

Allende's tomb

After Allende died, his body was moved to his family's tomb, but the name on the tomb was removed. Once Pinochet left power, Allende's body was recovered and moved to a tomb in Santiago's General Cemetery. You can see a photo of the tomb here. I visited the tomb on September 14th, three days after the anniversary of the coup. The tomb was covered in red flowers, and the socialist party had placed a large wreath nearby. At the gate to the crypt, someone had posted a transcript of Allende's address to the nation on the day of the coup.

The monument

I spent a long time just looking at the monument. You can see a photo of it here. The stone is divided into two sections, with a little under 2000 names engraved in all. The section on the left is for the "detenido y desaparecido", those who were kidnapped by the secret police. There are many names engraved, and next to each name is the date when that person vanished, like this:

  Olmos Guzman Gary Nelson 24-08-78

The section on the right is for those who were killed for political reasons. There are more names in this section than in the section for the desaparecidos. Next to each name is the date the person died, and how old they were:

  Ortiz Valenzuela Raul M. 18-09-73 15

If you can read a little spanish, the International Human Rights Project has published descriptions of what happened to each of those men.

All of the names are in alphabetical order by last name. As you read through all of the names, you can see places where entire families were kidnapped or killed on the same day.

Most of those who were killed seem to have been in their 20s and 30s, like Olmos Guzman, but the memorial has the names of plenty of people who were both younger and older than that. The oldest person I saw listed was killed when he was 81. The youngest was marked as having died at age 0. There were many more who were under 10.

Some people have left photos or notes to their loved ones at the memorial. The base of the memorial was covered in red flowers.

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