Uruguay: The Politics of Recent History

Today, as Uruguay finds itself governed by the first non-traditional party in its history, composed of parties once repressed by authoritarianism, very distinct questions and contemporary considerations stimulate the reconstruction of an era now part of the historical past.

ImageThe Recent Past Enters the Classroom in Uruguay

On October 25, 2005, the Central Directive Council (CODICEN) of the National Administration of Public Education (ANEP) in Uruguay resolved that a new history curriculum be sent to public primary and secondary schools throughout the country. The approval of an updated curriculum would, for the first time, include the teaching of the second half of the Uruguayan 20th century. It quickly became clear what such a proposition entailed: classroom instruction around the twelve dark years of dictatorship, its antecedents, and after-effects.

However, in the judgment of some, these were historical events that were better off held within “parentheses.” Indeed, that was the off-set location where 15 plus years of Uruguayan history had remained for over one and half decades.

In the transition from dictatorship to a new democracy in Uruguay, those who negotiated democracy’s return in the mid 1980s attempted to resume at exactly that point where institutions, rights, and guarantees had been dismantled nearly two decades prior. This frequently included the reinstatement of displaced officials to their old posts within national institutions, accompanied by a new emphasis on “governability” and consensus, an attempt to move beyond the excesses and absurdities of the dictatorship. In this way, historical parentheses would, in turn, be part of the institutional reality that accompanied democracy’s return.

Times had changed the country, yet an appearance was created that, really, the country remained the same.

Consistent with this trajectory, there would be no state sponsored truth commission investigating human rights abuses and disappearances in Uruguay, as occurred in the transitions in Argentina (1983) and Chile (1989). And, further, after an impunity law was upheld in a national referendum in 1989, silence would for years replace any public debate over military trials. It was not until 2003, under the presidency of Jorge Batlle that Uruguay, as a state, for the first time recognized its responsibility for human rights violations during the dictatorship.

Today, while the ley de caducidad (literally, expiry law) remains valid, under Tabaré Vázquez’s Frente Amplio administration new historical and archeological investigations have been carried out, with 47 cases against former military and civilian officials being excluded from the expiry law thus far. Although human rights groups argue there is much work still to be done, the last four years have brought notable advances in recovering a forgotten past.

In this setting, the proposal to include recent Uruguayan history in the national educational curriculum would be one initiative, among others, for restoring that which had been hushed—the historical restitution of a period which, while commonplace in the investigations of historians and social scientists, had long been muted within most public spaces. Through a series of 34 classes to be given on public television by some of Uruguayan’s most well-known historians, along with free web-access to materials for history instructors, the bases of a new curriculum were to be first diffused.

However, the debut of the television series, beginning in September 2006, would be overshadowed by the interpellation of one of its primary coordinators, historian Carlos Demasi, by Uruguayan Senator Francisco Gallinal. Gallinal, a member of Uruguay’s Partido Nacional, had in the weeks prior solicited Demasi’s removal from the history curriculum coordinating committee for critical remarks he had made about the role of Partido Nacional politicians during the transition out of dictatorship, among others.

In the months that followed, criticism would pile on the history curriculum committee, with former president and current senator Julio María Sanguinetti (Partido Colorado), claiming that the committee represented “‘one’ version of contemporary national history that responds to the current government,” and furthermore, one which, in his words, “consecrates a Marxist interpretation of history.”1 

While it was recently announced that the new national curriculum will begin in March 2009 in primary school classrooms (recent history has already become a part of secondary school curriculum), a conflict over how such history is presented will undoubtedly remain.

Recent History and a National Political Discussion

As an Uruguayan historian who has long advocated the curriculum changes, José Rilla2 sees few ways of avoiding this problem and indeed argues such debate is a healthy part of Uruguayan democracy. “We have to get used to living together, as historians, politicians, and citizens, in tension and in conflict. Nothing is going to resolve itself in a definitive manner, much less when we study the recent past,” maintains Rilla.

This does not mean that certain documented facts implicating particular political figures or organizations can be ignored or disavowed, but rather, according to Rilla, a certain contingency found in the many “contestable truths” of the past should be taught and opened up to further debate.

“Some believe that history is something sacred that cannot be debated with anyone, that it is part of the kingdom of the “technical” or the “aseptic,” without contamination or contact. I don’t believe history is like that,” argues Rilla. “I don’t think we (historians) can complain when citizens and their representatives protest about the manner in which historians write about the recent past. But at the same time, the citizenry and political leaders do not have to complain about the manner in which historians work and advance around the facts of the recent past either.”

As Rilla notes, the investigation and teaching of historical events, decisions, and personalities continue to play an “important civic role” in the formation of citizens in any country, Uruguay being no exception. As such, it is neither the possession of historians nor politicians.

And, in Uruguay, perhaps more than other countries in the region, this civic/political element of the historical past has been prominent in shaping national identity for decades, through both periods of democracy and dictatorship.

Between History and Story

Lying between and overshadowed by the region’s two traditional powers, Argentina and Brazil, emphasizing what makes Uruguay ‘particular,’ if not “exceptional,” has always been a frequent topic of national discussion. And, the country’s historical past has often been the common starting point for such a debate.

A nation formed with relatively few social or economic divisions within its population meant that national identity-building was largely a political project of construction by Uruguay’s two traditional parties. Today, a third party has entered, the left-of-center Frente Amplio coalition, but parties and their leaders remain the principal point of convergence between national history and story.

Particular national policies, and the larger than life political orators with whom they were identified, have, in different moments, been appropriated or rejected by both “left” and “right” in the construction of certain understandings of what it means to be “Uruguayan.” Representations of José Batlle y Ordoñez, the two-time president (1903-1907 and 1911-1915) credited with constructing key elements of modern Uruguay, blend, for example, elements of fact with myth—the notion of a politician turned rationalist philosopher-scientist working in his laboratory that was state of Uruguay. Batlle would travel frequently between Europe and Uruguay, and some argue that, through his travels, he attempted to transplant the most progressive initiatives of Europe’s social democratic tradition to a still “pure” nation with few historical scars.

Through such stories, Uruguayans often found a way to construct themselves as distinct from Argentines, Brazilians, and indeed, most other Latin Americans. While certain facts from the first half of the century were illustrative of such “exceptionality,” (one of the region’s most institutionalized democracy, progressive individual rights and guarantees, and high levels of social equality among them), others were subject to a deliberate act of creation.

Nevertheless, great tragedy interrupted romance as Uruguay crashed up against certain immutable realities of the era. No story of exceptionality would spare the one-time “Switzerland of the Americas” from the global wave of turbulence and unrest beginning in the late 1960s. Hopes of change, along with fears of what that change would indeed bring, linked up with the increasingly inescapable master narrative of the Cold War. Uruguay, very much in step with its Southern Cone neighbors, would see its treasured democratic institutions and respect for individual liberties succumb to the regional phenomena of political violence and state terrorism as the 1970s began.

The Past from the Present

The contingency of history, in general, and Uruguayan history, more particularly, has once again become central to the search for the political and interpretive limitations of Uruguay’s recent historical past.

Historians, politicians, and citizens all approach their investigations and analyses of the recent past through their position in the present, while charged with inescapable memories of the past. In many cases, memory has been improperly accepted as history; documentation and chronology at times displaced by particular emotions and beliefs. And for this reason, some historians, both in Uruguay and the region, have been criticized for at times defending the objectivity of what others see as an “impure” science, at best.

As Rilla sees it, however, the merits and critiques of certain interpretations will only be determined through a real public debate, a process that has not yet begun in his opinion. Through allowing the events and ideas of the recent past to be part of the public forum, accepting the tensions that will surely arise, the “dignity of the facts” will gradually show themselves.

Many primary and secondary school classrooms are now becoming a central forum for this tension to work itself out.

Looking Forward

Perhaps within this public return to the recent past lies an additional grain of forward-looking optimism and hope.

During the dictatorship, many Uruguayan historians returned to the Batllista era in their scholarship, attempting to figure out where history had gone terribly wrong. Why were historians now conducting their research in the halls of a university system taken over by a near totalitarian state?

Today, as Uruguay finds itself governed by the first non-traditional party in its history, composed of parties once repressed by authoritarianism, very distinct questions and contemporary considerations stimulate the reconstruction of an era now part of the historical past.

While the writing of this history throughout region is far from being definitive in its conclusions, today there is the possibility that in returning to a dark recent past, both justice and reconciliation can be accompanied by a renovative question: not, “where did everything go wrong?” but rather, “what were the projects and experiences that got the region through such difficult times?

The answers to such questions could offer important clues about how the Latin America of today might continue to build upon the democratic advances of the last decade. Only history will be the judge.

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

1 Sanguinetti, Julio M., “La tentación totalitaria,” editorial, Montevideo, El País, 2007.02.18

2 Rilla is most recently the author of La actualidad del pasado, usos de la historia en la política de partidos de Uruguay, 1942-1972, Montevideo: Sudamericana, 2008.