Yesterday we went to Santiago’s Cemetario General, the largest cemetery in the city. Originally the cemetery only served Catholics, but with the huge influx of British, French, and German immigrants in the 19th century, the Catholic Church opened up the burial grounds to disidentes as well. At first, “heretics” had to be buried on the other side of a high 3-meter-thick brick wall, so as not to contaminar the Catholic corpses, but this restriction was lifted in 1925 with President Arturo Alessandri Palma’s Constitution, which separated the Church and the State. Today the Patio de Disidentes is being preserved for historical reasons only, and it’s quite stunning to pass through the gate to that part of the cemetary and suddenly see headstones in English, French and German, among other languages, instead of Spanish.
We didn’t make it to Patio 29, the Pinochet-era mass grave site for a different kind of dissident (political in his case), but we did go over the a huge wall that’s been erected for those “disappeared” and executed during the dictatorship. The desaparecidos are listed by name on the left side of the monument, along with their age at the time of their disappearance and the date they were last seen. There are some 5000 names listed. On the right-hand side of the memorial are the 3,000-odd names of those known to me executed by the Pinochet regime, along with their ages at the time of execution and the date of said execution. Keep in mind that this all happened in a country with a population of 12 million.
This all being said, I’ve certainly spoken with a lot of folks here in Chile that insist that the dictatorship wasn’t all that bad. “He only killed 3,000 people,” they tell me. “Pinochet was a ‘soft’ dictator, compared to Argentina and Peru.” these folks all kept their heads down during the dictatorship and didn’t lose anyone close to them. I wonder if their thoughts on the military government would be different if they had.
But it also makes me wonder what kind of person I would be in their situation. Would I be willing to risk my life–and the lives of my loved ones–for a cause and a political ideal, or would I too bow my head and try to keep a low profile until it was over? It’s very easy to be critical now, but my life’s not on the line. And it’s the same with every Amnesty International petition I sign and every angry email I send to my government representatives. I have the ability to protest, both at home and abroad, without actually sacrificing anything other than a little of my time (not saying it was/is always that easy in the U.S, but I have been so blessed). Which then begs the question–is my action of protesting less meaningful because I don’t have to give anything up to realize it or am I now obliged to protest when something strikes me as unjust because I am guaranteed a very significant level of immunity?