Truth and Justice in Uruguay, Two Decades Delayed

At the end of June, thirty-five years will have passed since the small, oft-forgotten South American country of Uruguay entered a dark period of political repression, military dictatorship, and state terror.

Summary: After twelve years of Cold-War inspired dictatorship, formal democracy was re-established in Uruguay in 1985. However, while transitional experiences in other Southern Cone countries like Chile and Argentina have often been marked by state-led investigations of human rights atrocities during the respective authoritarian periods of each country, often coupled with military trials, such human rights advances largely stagnated in Uruguay. This was due to a law implemented in the negotiated democratic transition that sheltered military officials from prosecution. Today, two decades later, social and human rights activists have re-initiated a popular movement to annul the infamous "Ley de Caducidad" via a national plebiscite. In doing so, the democratic-legalist national tradition of Uruguay is being converted by popular actors into the means of creating a new image of a progressive society within an ever-changing Latin American political landscape.

At the end of June, thirty-five years will have passed since the small, oft-forgotten South American country of Uruguay entered a dark period of political repression, military dictatorship, and state terror. Unlike similar Cold War-inspired dictatorships, authoritarianism here did not begin with traumatic images of air force jets flying low of the capital city, bombing the presidential palace as a democratically-elected president remained locked up inside, as was the case in Chile. Nor did the dictatorial period in Uruguay, lasting from 1973-1984, coincide with a national collective memory of past restorative military actions, in contrast to neighboring Argentina, a country in which the armed forces had entered politics with alarming regularity to restore stability at times when democratic institutions seemed incapable of doing so.

Rather, in Uruguay, illegal detention, torture, and planned "disappearances"—most often targeting those whose only crime was their association with organizations of the political Left—was both gradual and seemingly contradictory to a national history built upon the resilience of democratic institutions and an impressively liberal political culture.

Now, over two decades after the restoration of formal democracy, a coalition of civil society organizations has entered the dark era of military repression anew, working vigorously in a movement to annul an amnesty law, implemented as part of a negotiated transition to democracy between the military and political party elites. The law, most commonly referred to as the Ley de Caducidad (literally, expiry law) or Ley de Impunidad, has sheltered most former military and police officials from prosecution for human rights abuses committed during the dictatorship.

In the wake of a new attempt to annul the law, many Uruguayans are once again struggling to balance a search for much-delayed truth and justice with a national understanding of Uruguay’s democratic and reconciliatory historical past.

An Absurd Tragedy

Noting the importance of the performance arts in Uruguay, the father of Uruguayan sociology, Germán Rama, once described the capital of Montevideo as a city with a disproportionate level of cultural sophistication, given its size and often provincial tendencies. Political rebellion masked in the creative expression of murgas, a traditional Uruguayan performance of music, dance, and a subtle but often profound social critique, was, for example, an important means of combating totalizing repression utilized by student and neighborhood groups during the final years of the dictatorship.

In many ways, such theatrical productions were more than simply a rejection of dictatorship itself, as they unequivocally denounced a politics of scripted, elite negotiation–a tradition reaching deep into Uruguay’s national foundation.

It was during the dictatorship, however, that the art of theatrics, staged, absurd, and on display to the public at-large, reached its peak, used by the military to justify a police state as guerrilla activity had all but disappeared. The inversion of the art of performance, from a mode of creative expression to one of controlled repression, became a defining characteristic of the tragedy of dictatorship. The highest per capita detention rate in a region of dictatorships would be its result.

In 1976, Sara Méndez was forced into a feature role in one of the Uruguayan military’s most infamous performances of absurdity. Méndez, a young political activist beginning in the late 1960s, was kidnapped in 1976 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She had gone into exile in neighboring Argentina in 1973 after the dissolution of the Uruguayan parliament in June of that year. In 1976, the failing government of Isabel Perón was overtaken by the Argentine military and cooperative operations between Argentina, Uruguay, and other Southern Cone countries, an operation that would come to be known as Plan Condor, increased in both number and scale.

Méndez was one such victim of Plan Condor. Kidnapped, separated from her newborn child, tortured at the now infamous Automotores Orletti clandestine detention center in Buenos Aires, she was eventually transported by the Uruguayan military back to Montevideo, on a secret flight with over 20 other Uruguayans. All had been illegally detained in Argentina.

Unbeknownst to those held in secret detainment, at this same moment, repression in Uruguay was finally being addressed by certain individuals in the United States government, which had long shown its support for anti-communist dictatorships in the region. As the North American summer of 1976 progressed in Washington, then Democratic Congressman, Ed Koch, was working vigorously to cut off military aid to authoritarian regimes in the Southern Cone. Uruguay was central to Koch’s plan. For this reason, it would be in here where a military plot to assassinate the Congressman with a poisoned cocktail would later be uncovered.

Likely influenced by the prospect of losing the financial backing of the United States, Sara Méndez, along with those with whom she was being detained, were coerced into participating in a staged raid meant to illustrate the imminent subversive threat that remained within the country. At the end of October 1976, placed into a beach house outside of Montevideo that was rented by military officials, Sara and four others who had previously been detained and tortured in Buenos Aires would be "re-detained." This time her detention was one act in larger staged production of phony raids, presented to a national and international audience as part of recently discovered guerrilla activity.

While the Koch amendment passed a month earlier, cutting of military aid to Uruguay, U.S. relations with military regime still remained friendly. Many military leaders hoped the United States would reconsider.

However, shortly after the absurdity of the staged raid, Jimmy Carter would be elected in the 1976 elections, and, upon assuming office in 1977, not only was the Koch amendment maintained but economic aid to Uruguay would be severely reduced as a model for President Carter’s new human rights agenda.

Nevertheless, Sara Méndez would remain illegally detained in an Uruguayan prison until May of 1981.

In Search of Truth and Justice

ImageToday, Sara Méndez and many others affiliated with Uruguay’s central labor union (PIT-CNT) the country’s student movement, the cooperative housing movement, and parts of the human rights community, find themselves still active in a popular campaign to find truth and justice amidst a history that for years was rarely discussed. The current struggle in Uruguay has come to embody the unique constitutional character of the country itself while offering once again a poignant critique of a culture of scripted and controlled politics.

According to Méndez, who is now responsible for the movement’s interaction with those Uruguayans living abroad, "Uruguay is a very particular country. Here we turned to a procedure of action of a constitutional nature, corresponding to the country itself, in order to get the opinion of the people to annul the law."

Presently, the campaign is in the process of collecting enough signatures to put the issue of annulling the impunity law on the 2009 voting ballot. To date, over 100,000 signatures have been collected, but by April 2009, a total of 250,000, or 10 percent of the national voting population, will be needed before voters are given a say on the matter in the national elections of October 2009.

This is not the first time that the law has been challenged by grassroots activists. In the late 1980s, a similar campaign was organized, well-over 250,000 signatures were collected, and the issue of striking down the law which shelters ex-military leaders from prosecution was put before voters. However, in 1989, voters rejected the measure, 55.9% opposing the annulment of the law and 41.3 percent in favor. Many suspect a fear of military intervention following the vote had a significant impact on the results.

For Méndez, the first campaign of the late 1980’s, in which she also actively participated, had an important lasting effect that went beyond the vote itself.

"Through that campaign we could talk for the first time about what had happened in Uruguay," remarks Méndez. "It was completely unknown. The campaign allowed us to get out into neighborhoods, go to the interior of the country, and talk. It was a small window that opened. The interior [predominantly rural Uruguay, outside of the capital of Montevideo] had been completely silent."

It is this struggle, to end persistent silence over state violence in a country typically defined by constant dialogue and debate, which the current movement builds upon.

Recent Political Shifts: New Legal and Cultural Standards to Follow?

The rise of Frente Amplio to national leadership in 2005, Uruguay’s first left-of-center governing coalition at the national level, has propelled new cracks in the over two decades of silence. The governing coalition, composed of various parties who were active in the campaign to annul the Ley de Caducidad in the late 1980s, has begun to carry out the first state-sponsored investigations of state crimes. With the aid of historians and archeologists, remains of some who were disappeared during the dictatorship are at least being exhumed and identified.

This follows the first-ever official state recognition of disappearances during the Cold War period, issued by former president Jorge Battle in 2003.

However, to this point the prosecution of former military officials for human rights violations has only extended to cases involving officials whose crimes took place outside of Uruguay, most frequently in neighboring Argentina. Those crimes committed in Uruguay remain protected by the existing impunity law, whose annulment the current frenteamplista President, Tabaré Vázquez does not publicly support.

For Méndez, this fact represents a new means of social classification. During the dictatorship, every citizen was categorized as one of three types of citizens given their past political tendencies and "subversive risk." Now, according to Mendez, Uruguayans are seeing a similar categorization; the differentiation between those who deserve to have their judicial requests heard and those who do not, simply based on the location in which the human rights abuse occurred.

As the work of human rights lawyers and activists has propelled prosecution of former top military and state intelligence officials in Chile–a nation whose hesitancy to re-open its contested past once has often mirrored Uruguay–and in Argentina, where military trials were reopened under former president Nestor Kirchner, many human rights activists here feel a sense of relative frustration. Indeed, in just the last weeks, the processing of nearly 100 ex-military officials and intelligence agents for human rights crimes committed in the early years of the Pinochet dictatorship was ordered by a Chilean judge.

Speaking to the current state of affairs in Uruguay, Méndez maintains that "everything remains controlled here" asking, "Where does the silence break?"

Breaking the Silence

It is unlikely that the silence will instantly be shattered in Uruguay, a country where historical instances of drastic and immediate change are difficult to locate. Indeed, just as the search for justice by families of detained and disappeared Uruguayans, in the form of prosecutions, has been most often met by judicial silence, so too does reflective silence underscore much of the human rights work undertaken in Uruguay. The national day of remembrance for the human rights abuses of the dictatorial era, May 20, for example, is uniquely highlighted by a March of Silence, a muted procession down Montevideo’s main avenue, 18 de Julio, led by families of detained and disappeared persons.

The date, which marks the anniversary of the assassination of two opposition leaders, Senator Zelmar Michelini and Deputy Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz, killed in Buenos Aires in 1976, is illustrious of scars that reach deep into the country’s national imaginary of moderation. That is, the march represents how coordinated repression touched not just those groups associated with a defiant New Left but also how state terror attacked traditional party politics and the democratic institutions within which such politics was conducted, and in which the art of controlled political performance was embedded.

Michelini and Gutiérrez Ruiz had both been prominent figures in this highly institutionalized system.

Nevertheless, there are signs that such silence is being slowly transformed into the unmasking of truth, justice and the beginning of a larger national discussion on the nature of twelve years of repression and state terror. A government sympathetic to human rights developments and the increased political presence of certain civil society pressure organizations, many of whom are spearheading the current campaign, are significant signs of this transformation. At the same time, other non-state actors, namely the military are slowly exiting from a privileged position of social influence.

One Nation, Changing Performers

On January 31, 2007, a group of military leaders gathered together, singing the Uruguayan national hymn as the New Year approached. On May 20, 2008, the 13th annual March of Silence ended in nearly the same fashion as families of the detained and disappeared led over 20,000 in the singing of the national hymn. The two images define the on-going struggle over national symbols in Uruguayan; the same song utilized by very different sectors of the body politic to represent very distinct imaginings of the nation.

However, the New Year’s Eve act of ex-military leaders was not provided the public stage that, for example, the 1976 "foiled invasion plot" had been given. The gathering of top military and police officials did not even occur on the streets of the nation’s capital, but rather was forced to occur in the dining hall of the nation’s military jail. The act of ex-militares, prosecuted for crimes committed outside of the country during the dictatorship, would be one isolated from the greater society.

It is this change in the art of political performance, not only of actors but, more significantly, of the conductors and the stage of the performance itself, that embodies the current moment of optimism within the Uruguayan human rights community. The idea of politics as an art with certain rule and a script remains. That is, Institutional and legalist mechanisms maintain their centrality in Uruguay’s struggle over a dark past. But presently, new non-state conductors are being given the chance to hold the pen. And, further, a new government, who has already exempted 47 cases of human rights abuses from a privileged position of impunity since assuming power, appears willing to listen.

The creation of public recognition and the breaking of silence around a moment of state terror long ignored, propelled by those social organizations that lead the movement to annul an impunity law, is a preliminary indication of a society that, in the hopeful words of Sara Méndez, "can finally express those things that were never talked about," a nation in which "the society is allowed to show its power."

Joshua Frens-String, a freelance writer, currently lives and studies in Montevideo, Uruguay, where he is a Fulbright Research Scholar.