Uruguay: Guerillas in Government

Thirty years after the US-backed military dictatorship in, the Tupamaros – left-wing urban guerillas active in the 1960s and ‘70s – have assumed control of the Uruguayan presidency by being elected to office as part of a left-center coalition known as the Frente Amplio, or Broad Front.

The Task Force on the Americas delegation went to Uruguay in August 2014 to learn about the progressive measures in Uruguay: legalization of abortion, marijuana, and same sex marriage. But also to request that Uruguay withdraw its troops from the UN military occupation of Haiti and to stop sending its military officers to the School of the Americas (SOA, a.k.a. “School of Assassins” now renamed WHINSEC) in Fort Benning, Georgia.

The delegation had in-depth meetings with the president José “Pepe” Mujica, exterior minister Luis Almagro, and defense minister Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro. We explained that as a human rights group we stand in solidarity with the social justice movements in Latin America. And because we are a human rights organization, we oppose US imperialism in the region.

The World’s Poorest President

Mujica is famous as the world’s poorest president. He drives an old VW beetle and resides on a small farm instead of living in the presidential mansion. Ninety percent of his salary is donated to charity.

The president, cloaked in a tattered woolen overcoat, charmed us over the course of our one-hour meeting. On the progressive side, he noted legal abortion is not only about protecting women but about protecting the poor; marriage equality is something as old as humanity — it is amazing that ancient civilizations such as the Greeks and Romans were more advanced on this issue; and it is better for the state to regulate marijuana than the drug dealers.

Mujica also hoped that Uruguay’s offer to receive six prisoners from Guantánamo could serve as a signal to other countries to follow in the same manner and eventually close down the US prison entirely. Mujica, himself a political prisoner under the Uruguayan military dictatorship, has called on the US government to free three Cuban and one Puerto Rican political prisoners.

The president said Uruguay is in a two-year process of withdrawing its troops, but remains in Haiti in solidarity with Brazil. He claimed that if Uruguay and Brazil were to completely withdraw now, the already bad situation would get worse. He rationalized that it is better for them to be there than the traditional US Marines.

Mujica noted that South America is now asserting its historical personality as shown in institutions such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). Increasingly, the US and Canada have found themselves alone, especially regarding Cuba.

The SOA is a “very good travel agency,” said Mujica, referring to military officers going on free trips to the US. With only a handful of Uruguayans participating in the SOA each year, the president said the SOA is losing its importance similar to the decline of the US-dominated Organization of American States (OAS).

On the occasion of his inauguration in 2010, the president likened himself to a wildcat that had become a vegetarian. Mujica was referring to his leftist past as a leader of the Tupamaros and to his present policies of accommodation to international capital and the US.

Politics aside, the president’s parting words to us were “eat lots of meat.” Uruguay is the world’s highest per capita consumer of meat.

Former Military Prisoner Heads Military

The defense ministry had far less security than many US public schools. Defense minister Huidobro slowly walked in, appearing old beyond his 72 years and leaning on a cane. Bearded and dressed casually, he looked every bit like a kindly Karl Marx. Also a former top leader of the Tupamaros, he was tortured and imprisoned under the most squalid conditions by the military dictatorship from 1973 to 1985. Now he is in charge of the military.

Some of the direct perpetrators from the military dictatorship are now in jail in Uruguay. The US ambassador at the time of the dictatorship who was the intellectual author of the atrocities, the defense minister commented, was guilty but was not jailed.

While defending his government’s participation the UN’s decade-old military occupation of Haiti, he admitted that the mission to bring democracy there had failed. He minimized the importance of Uruguay’s participation in the SOA and even noted that Uruguay participates in the far more significant UNITAS military exercises with the US Southern Command.

He called the US campaign against communism a nefarious lie. “Everything the US didn’t like was labeled communist.” He quipped, “there are no coups in US because there is no US embassy in Washington.” For example, the groups in the Ukraine behind the recent coup were Nazis supported by $5 billion from the US. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in the 1990s was manufactured as was the recent coup. George Soros’ NGO was implicated, according to Huidobro.

The defense minister opined that US citizens are the first victims of fraud by the big banks. According to Huidobro, “Wall Street is the ruler of the US.” The two-hour meeting ended with the defense minister lamenting “war is the best business in the world. War is promoted by those who profit from it.”

Delegation leader Andres Conteris and Janice Sevre-Duszynska join demostration at invitation of Uruguayan activistsGrassroots Activists

Not surprisingly grassroots activists expressed opinions somewhat in variance regarding their government, despite its progressive gloss. During the military dictatorship, Uruguay held the most political prisoners per capita in the world and still has the largest military in the continent proportional to its population of 3.3 million. Activists with whom we met cautioned that leftist credentials and rhetoric are used to cover for contrary policies, reflecting a shift from left to libertarian by the former guerillas.1

Monica Ruet of the Coordinating Group for the Withdrawal of Troops from Haiti explained that with the Mujica government “the US won the lottery.” Because the government is seen as progressive and as popularly supported, the Mujica government plays the role of the “good left” legitimizing US imperialism in Haiti and elsewhere. According to Ruet, “Obama and Mujica are one heart.” Her organization calls for immediate withdrawal of the troops from Haiti.

Similar views on the US role in South America were voiced by the Oscar Urtason and Ignacio Encodorea of the Mothers and Families of the Detained and Disappeared and Gaston Grisoni of the Uruguayan Association of Ex-Prisoners (Crysol). These organizations have been struggling with the Mujica government to release records on the disappeared and on the military perpetrators, strongly rejecting the government’s claim that the records had been destroyed by the departing dictatorship.

The activists protest that unlike other militaries in the region, the Uruguayan military was not “cleaned” of its perpetrators after the military dictatorship. Only 20 military have been tried and jailed compared to about 1000 in Argentina.

Photographer and political prisoner during the dictatorship Aurelio Gonzalez observed “dictatorships come from the north. Without US support, the Latin American dictatorships would not have stood.”

Gonzalez explained how Operation Condor was a campaign of political repression and terror by the right-wing dictatorships of the Southern Cone of South America. In addition to Uruguay starting in 1973, military dictatorships in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, and Paraguay collaborated. The US provided technical support and supplied military aid in the 1970s and ‘80s to Operation Condor under the guise of anti-communism.

The Switzerland of Latin America

Both the political activists and government officials we met characterize Uruguay as centrist, the Switzerland of Latin America. Exterior minister Almagro posited Uruguay as occupying a middle position between the right and left governments in Latin America.

The business-friendly Uruguayan government cooperates with US military and economic initiatives, while it also participates in independent regional alliances such as UNASUR. Uruguay has adopted certain libertarian measures such as legalization of abortion, marijuana, and same sex marriage, which are progressive but which rationalize rather than challenge capitalism. None-the-less these are laudable achievements, especially for a nominally Catholic nation but with a strong secular culture.

Lilian Abracinskas of the pro-abortion Women and Health (MYSU) summed up a widespread sentiment of the activists we met that “the social movements fought for the progressive laws in Uruguay, but the politicians claimed the success.”

Roger D. Harris is president of the 30-year-old human rights organization Task Force on the Americas (http://www.mitfamericas.org/).


1 “The philosophy of my heart is libertarian,” said Mujica in a recent interview in The Economist (http://www.economist.com/blogs/americasview/2014/08/uruguay).