LA PAZ – The General Cemetery of La Paz, with its lanes crammed with niches, mausoleums, sculptures, murals and memorials, safeguards an important part of Bolivia’s national memory regarding the terrible period of the country’s 1964-1982 military dictatorship.
These memories are transmitted to high school and college students who are brought here by their teachers for guided tours as part of the “A day in the cemetery” initiative – now in its fifth year – organized by the La Paz City Hall.
The aim of the project is to portray the cemetery “as an open-air museum, and proposing it to the teachers as an alternative teaching space,” Ely Arana, an analyst with the municipal Cultural Heritage Unit, told EFE.
“This year, we decided to work on dictatorships because there are spaces in which those people who died during the epoch of (Bolivia’s) dictatorship are remembered or commemorated,” he said.
Arana said that many young people “don’t know anything about this period in Bolivia’s history,” and so authorities are seeking to “make them aware” of that epoch, or to get them to ask their parents – if they lived during that time – if they remember “what a curfew was, a state of siege or who the presidents were” back then.
The tour begins behind the cemetery chapel, where the guides explain the historical context of the epoch of military dictatorships in Latin America.
They speak to the students, for example, about the Condor Plan, as per which the repression of the opposition during the 1970s and ‘80s was coordinated among the military governments in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Bolivia.
The next stop is the tomb of former Vice President Federico Suazo, who was not part of the dictatorship period, but the site is important for the four sculptures that surround it and represent faith, charity, hope and justice.
These were the virtues that characterized those fighting to recover democracy in Bolivia, according to the municipal guides.
As the tour groups move through the cemetery’s lanes of tombs and memorials, the guides explain other details about Bolivia’s dictatorship.
For instance, the rule of Hugo Banzer from 1971-1978 was “notorious for the violence perpetrated (during that time) and his prolonged time in power,” one student remembered their guide saying.
A hunger strike headed by emblematic leader Domitila Chungara and other wives of miners forced Banzer out of power, but that wasn’t enough to restore democracy in Bolivia.
After Banzer’s tenure in power, there were three other de facto military governments, one of them headed by Alberto Natush Busch, who – although he only ruled for 16 days – was one of the cruelest leaders in Bolivian history, responsible for about 100 murders and about 500 people injured.
He was succeeded by Lidia Gueiler, the first woman to govern Bolivia, but she was toppled on July 17, 1980, in a coup by Gen. Luis Garcia Meza.
Garcia Meza’s time in power was another dark period, with many deaths and disappearances, above all of leftist leaders like Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz, whose remains have never been found.
One of the most violent episodes was the so-called “Harrington Street Massacre,” a 1981 operation in which paramilitaries killed eight leaders of the now defunct Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR).
The victims of that operation are now remembered in the General Cemetery with a monument with two enormous stones, one of them bearing the names of the eight dead and the second reading “Death before living as slaves.”
The site is highlighted by a mural some 80 square meters (860 square feet) in size – titled “Time-Memory-Death” – showing three people holding candles against a black background, painted in 2018 by Uruguay’s Theic.
The guided tours of the cemetery will conclude on Friday at the close of the fifth year of the “Day in the cemetery” project.