Uruguay Confronts its Violent Past: Myth and Reality in this Alleged “Switzerland” of Latin America

Newly Inaugurated President Tabaré Vázquez Seeks to Redress Past Wrongs

  • In his first months in office, Uruguayan president wastes almost no time in proving himself a strong advocate of human rights. Unlike his predecessors, Tabaré Vázquez seems to be following through with his campaign pledge to tackle the critical challenges posed by the country’s unreconciled legacy of violence and repression instituted under the 1972 – 1985 military dictatorship.
  • Vázquez is wisely taking advantage of popular support that won him the presidency by quickly turning to target the long-standing issue of bringing justice to the “dirty war” era military rogues. By assuming full executive control over human rights related investigations, he seeks to avoid as much political and intra-governmental squabbling as possible.
  • Under orders from the new president and in accordance with Article 4 of the 1986 amnesty measure – a provision that mandates the investigation of forced disappearances – forensic scientists from the University of the Republic began their search on April 19 for human remains on the first of two military installations to which they have been granted access. They hope to discover evidence that might indicate the fate of unaccounted human rights victims who “disappeared” at the hands of military, police and paramilitary forces throughout the 1970s and the early 1980s.
  • Following 12 years of illegitimate military rule and a 1986 negotiated transition to civilian control, the then newly elected democratic president, Julio Sanguinetti, signed into law an amnesty that precluded the state from prosecuting human rights violators. At the time, Sanguinetti was under heavy pressure from a military hierarchy that was unwilling to face up to accepting responsibility for its past actions and which was fully prepared to undo the country’s process of democratization in order to protect itself.
  • The Ley de Caducidad, as the amnesty law is called, institutionalized the military’s impunity and opened up a Pandora’s Box of social tension and unresolved conflicts that has continued to haunt Uruguayan society. Though relatively less publicized than the Argentine or Chilean human rights catastrophe during the 1970s, Uruguay’s military dictatorship was guilty of innumerable acts of repression, violence and murder that never have been redressed.
  • Over the last few months, the newfound ascendancy in Uruguay of Tabaré Vázquez’s left-of-center Progressive Encounter/Broad Front Coalition government has attracted merited attention. Most of the reaction to Vazquez’s victory has focused on its unprecedented nature, as his victory broke the near absolute grip on power that the country’s two conservative political parties, the Blancos and the Colorados, historically have enjoyed. In most of the foreign press, Vázquez’s triumph has been contextualized within a leftist tendency in South American politics, with journalists and observers alike centering their analyses on the underlying reasons for this continental shift. Observers also have wondered what the domestic and international consequences of Vázquez’s election may be, as well as how to characterize Uruguay’s new government in relation to its supposedly ideologically-aligned neighbors in Buenos Aires, Brasilia, Santiago and, of course, Caracas.

    One important topic that seemingly has slipped through the cracks when it comes to explaining Uruguay to the rest of the world regards the country’s legacy of systematic and gross human rights violations committed under the auspices of its brutal military dictatorship. Vázquez’s ability to implement significant socioeconomic reforms and rescue the country from its worst recession in recent history in part hinges on whether he can effectively respond to continued pressure to resolve his society’s lingering and deeply embittered dispute with its past. For the outside world, it is critical to understand that with his most recent measures Vázquez intends to redress what, until now, has been the state’s overarching predisposition to ignore its violent past following Uruguay’s relatively brief transition to democracy. Recognizing the inadequacy of subsequent attempts to reconcile basic facts of its tortured modern history is essential. Past efforts to uncover the full truth have been undermined by a lack of institutional support, which led to fragmentary and often erroneous information that may have resulted in more harm than good. Consequently, the possibility of achieving any measurable level of social reconciliation rests in the participation and cooperation of Uruguay’s various social and political actors within a carefully delineated process of national reflection and harmonization. Thus, it is fitting that Vázquez’s broad governing coalition includes former members of the leftist Tupamaros guerrilla movement with whom the then military dictatorship ruthlessly battled in the early 1970s.

    Uruguay, unlike Argentina and Chile, has yet to embark on a comprehensive reassessment of past atrocities and does not have a record of judicial investigations or proceedings against its many human rights violators. Although a 1986 amnesty law precludes judicial action, Vázquez commendably seems unwilling to tolerate the triumph of silence and inaction over such grave injustices. He has constantly reaffirmed his campaign commitment to carry out new investigations and, if nothing else, provide the victims, their family members and his ruptured nation with greater access to the truth – a necessary prerequisite for Uruguay to come to terms with a sordid recent past.

    Uruguay’s Atrocities Overshadowed
    Nestled along the La Plata River and bordered by Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay commonly has been overshadowed by its larger and more prominent neighbors. Uruguay was previously referred to as the “Switzerland” of South America, a title it earned due to its historically high level of economic development and comprehensive representative institutions and social welfare. In 1973, the armed forces seized power, thus shattering what used to differentiate this country from a continental reign of undemocratic governance. What followed was a decade of state led terror consumed by the irrational impulses of the military and its supporters to view fellow Uruguayans as representing the greatest of threats to their country.

    In Argentina, estimates of those “disappeared” or killed by the military juntas of the 1970s reach as high as thirty thousand, while in Chile the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship murdered between three and four thousand political and social opponents and assassinated its enemies worldwide, including former ambassador Orlando Letellier in Washington D.C. In both countries, the military’s systematic use of terror and unbridled violence earned them ineradicable infamy, while Uruguay’s comparable past has somehow not brought Uruguay near the same notoriety.

    Helping to explain why relatively little has been written about Uruguay’s traumatic experience with authoritarianism, compared to the coverage extended to Argentina and Chile, is not easy to explain. The means by which Uruguay’s military dictatorship instituted its control mechanism differed fundamentally from those resorted to in neighboring countries, making its dictatorship appear superficially more benign. In reality, however, available statistics indicate that a larger per capita percentage of the population was affected by state sponsored repression in Uruguay than in either Argentina or Chile.

    Hushed Repression
    As in most of Latin America, the infamous National Security Doctrine formed the basis for the Uruguayan military’s illegitimate power grab. This ideology was conceptualized by the Brazilian armed forces during the 1960s and subsequently adopted by authoritarian regimes throughout the region, with significant U.S. financial and logistical support. At the time, the common perception was that the communist threat justified using violent and repressive means to “safeguard” society. The threat was so real, its advocates argued, that the application of such methods overrode any civil liberty concerns regarding the victimizing effect such a strategy would have on the civilian population, or the damage that was being done to society by the total deconstruction of the rule of law.

    In Uruguay, the military resorted to widespread and arbitrary arrests and the systematic use of torture as the means to break opposition to its rule. Indeed, this method was so prevalent and effective that throughout the 1970s, Uruguay had the world’s largest ratio of political prisoners to national population, and all organized opposition to its rule quickly disappeared. Estimates for the total number of individuals detained during the military dictatorship hovers around 600,000 (current population is 3.4 million), with 4,000 of the most prominent “threats” to the dictatorship being subjected to long-term incarceration. In addition, 164 Uruguayans disappeared and it is believed that most of them were later killed in Argentina as part of a cooperative arrangement between the two countries’ military regimes. According to anecdotal accounts and the Nunca Más investigation into the practices of the military dictatorship – prepared without government cooperation by the civic organization Organización Servicio Paz y Justicia-Uruguay (SERPAJ) – nearly all prisoners were subjected to some level of torture with 99 percent of those interviewed by SERPAJ confirmed that this was the case in their personal experience. This abhorrent institutionalized practice was not only meant to break the will of prisoners and glean information on banned dissident activities, but it was an integral component of the military’s broad campaign of installing fear. Tortured prisoners were purposely kept alive, often so that once released they could serve as living testaments of the terrible toll inflicted on those who dared to stand up to the repression.

    Forgiveness by Fiat
    In Uruguay, human rights violators during the military regime have enjoyed a level of impunity unmatched in any other of its Southern Cone neighbors. While hundreds of cases are currently making their way through Argentine and Chilean courts and a number of perpetrators have already been convicted, only one person, former foreign minister Juan Carlos Blanco – who was involved in the disappearance of Elena Quinteros in 1976 – has been convicted in Uruguay of crimes associated with the military regime. Carlos Blanco was released under nebulous judicial reasons after serving only six months of his prison term. Such a long lasting injustice is a fact difficult to either ignore or rationalize. In a country with a population of only 3.4 million and with the capital, Montevideo, home to nearly half of its citizens, stories abound of victims coming face to face in the streets with those who had persecuted or tortured them in the past. Victims risk routinely confronting the haunting fact that their former victimizers are allowed to live their lives free from punishment or other consequences. Such conditions of inherent social tension are a result of the unique character of Uruguay’s transition to democracy.

    In the early 1980s, Uruguay’s economic disarray, the total neutralization of the country’s armed leftist opposition and the failure to ratify a new constitution by referendum, induced the military to seek a negotiated transfer of power to civilian rule. The 1984 so-called Naval Club Pact between the military high command and most of the country’s remaining political parties established the parameters by which the armed forces would permit democratic elections. It is believed, though it has never been confirmed, that in those negotiations the Colorado Party, whose candidate Julio Maria Sanguinetti would later win the presidency, also agreed to shield military personnel from future criminal prosecution. Insofar as an agreement between the negotiated parties existed or not, the end result was the same, as Sanguinetti never called for either investigations or trials. The legislative branch did conduct an investigation into the whereabouts of the disappeared, but this report lacked sufficient support from political elites for it to have any weight, and its conclusion did not even acknowledge the systematic use of torture or official repression.

    Judicial investigations were opened in 1985 under the new democratic government as relatives of the disappeared persisted in submitting evidence to civilian courts. These investigations eventually forced Sanguinetti to abandon his reliance on de facto impunity. Fearing that the military backlash to such investigations would have a destabilizing effect and threaten its strategy of pacification and consensus building, Sanguinetti’s Colorado Party undertook proactive measures to “safeguard” democracy, constituting a tragically ironic parallel with the initial justification for the military’s 1973 intervention. On December 22, 1986, Uruguay’s legislature approved the Ley de Caducidad, effectively precluding the state from seeking punishment for those guilty of gross human rights violations. Although the subsequent public uproar over the law led to a referendum on April 16, 1989, the measure was upheld by 58 percent of the population under a not-so-veiled threat from the military that they would resort to force in order to protect their institutional integrity. On July 25, 1986, Catholic Church leaders issued a statement that acutely foreshadowed the impact of the amnesty law – La Comisión Arquidiocesana de la Pastoral Social stated that any attempt to pardon without a full knowledge of the truth would pervert the very meaning of that procedure.

    At the time, most Uruguayans indicated that they would be content just to protect the country’s vulnerable transition toward complete democracy. Nevertheless, despite strong demands from the military, the state and certain sectors of the populace to forgive and forget, the clamor for justice has not dissipated as much as expected even two decades later. On May 20, 2004, thousands of Uruguayans commemorated the 1976 assassination of two fierce critics of the military dictatorship, legislators Zelmar Michelini and Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz, who were gunned down by paramilitary operatives while in exile in Buenos Aires. In what was a mixture of remembrance and protest, the multitude snaked its way through one of Montevideo’s widest avenues, many carrying pictures of relatives or friends who had been detained and later disappeared and others holding up placards demanding “Truth, Memory and Justice.” Then presidential candidate Tabaré Vázquez, who, in a poignant gesture did not lead the march but walked among the crowd, commented, “this march is of great importance…it is the unequivocal response of Uruguayan society,” adding “Article 4 [a provision that calls for investigating the fate of the disappeared] of the Ley de Caducidad has yet to be fulfilled.” Despite the passage of time, it has become apparent that a sheet of paper granting amnesty, even if backed by the full authority of the state, cannot induce people to forgive, much less forget. Instead, it has emboldened the population’s demand for justice.

    Closing the Door?
    Perhaps because impunity has for so long characterized Uruguay’s engagement with its violent past, the state has been unresponsive to demands for justice in regards to the longstanding human rights toll. However, some politicians have commendably advocated greater governmental support for efforts by social organizations to publicize details of the military dictatorship’s criminal actions and to begin to name culprits. Uruguay’s grim legacy is intimately related to the need for validation and justice for society in general as well as for surviving families. At the very least, those responsible for arbitrary arrests, systematic torture and murder must be identified, disavowed and publicly repudiated.

    Former President Jorge Batlle initiated an August 2000 presidential resolution to set up a peace commission to take “the necessary steps required to determine the situation of those detained – disappeared during the de facto military regime” and fulfill the “state’s ethical obligation to preserve the national history.” Despite its numerous successes in further clarifying what happened to the victims of the military regime, its main raison d’être – to “consolidate national pacification and to once and for all seal peace between all Uruguayans” – the authorities were obstructed by the unwillingness of many retired senior military personnel to cooperate with its mandate. The commission’s final report, presented to Batlle on April 10, 2003, alluded to such difficulties and insisted that its work be continued by other means. Referring to the physical remains of the disappeared, the commission concluded that because “many military and police officials were not willing to share information” and since its authority, as ordered by the president, only allowed it to “make use of its persuasive abilities…it cannot – nor is it in a position to – confirm information it has received from third parties.” The commissioners continued by “emphasizing that in their judgment, Uruguayans deserve a clearer and more definitive report on the fate of the remains of the disappeared.” Batlle, nevertheless, obdurately insisted that the matter was closed.

    Delayed but Welcomed Action
    Vázquez, along with many other Uruguayans, strongly disagreed with Batlle’s decision to discontinue investigations and has assumed personal responsibility of the issue. If his first weeks in office afford any revealing disclosures, then his policy regarding human rights will be one founded on action and not on empty rhetoric or, worse still, the rapt silence adopted by most of his predecessors.

    Good Faith Investigations
    On March 3, two days after his inauguration, Vázquez told the BBC that he would push for government involvement in cases of the disappeared, adding that he would “personally guarantee that all actions conform to the country’s legal standards.” In the same interview, the president also reaffirmed his intention to create a permanent cabinet-level position to deal with human rights, stating that the issue “goes far beyond our tragic past and requires that we also work very hard for gender and children’s rights as well those of prisoners, victims of crime and thus secure the right to a dignified life.” The question is whether Vázquez will back his promises with substantial action.

    A day earlier, Vázquez signed an agreement with his Argentine counterpart, Nestor Kirchner, to facilitate bi-national cooperation in investigating crimes committed by each country’s military dictatorships. On March 17, this pact bore fruit as the Argentine government announced that it was passing along previously confidential information on the murders of Michelini and Guitiérrez Ruiz to the Uruguayan authorities. On that same day, experts from the University of the Republic obtained final judicial approval to access two military installations designated as Batallones 13 and 14 and to investigate if the bodies of any disappeared dissidents were disposed of therein. Speaking to the Uruguayan press, Ofelia Gutiérrez, one of the investigators, stated that even without the identification of human remains in the vicinity, forensic evidence would help establish the likelihood that clandestine burials had taken place. Furthermore, Gutierrez also noted that they have begun receiving evidence corroborating the possibility of bodies or empty graves in other military installations, and that they will process the information and await orders from the president. In the same interview, the scientists noted that much of their work will depend upon collaboration with the armed forces.

    Vázquez’s first steps as president suggest that human rights violations in Uruguay are finally being given the importance that they deserve. Hopefully, the government will continue on the same path and adopt an inclusive approach to this sensitive topic so as to not marginalize anew such long committed social organizations as the Madres y Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos. Both short- and long-term success may also depend on support from the new generation of officers in the armed forces who, unlike their older military brethren, are not shackled by a highly compromised past. Although reports from Uruguay indicate that Vázquez’s actions are causing anxiety and alarm among the retired corps, particularly irritating high ranking officers, the current military command has been cooperative. It will be difficult for obstructionist elements within the armed forces to make their feelings openly known without risking confrontation with the president, since Vázquez wisely has decided to assume full control over this issue. The question remains how far he is willing to go in rehashing unresolved conflicts if conservative social sectors opposed to such measures are still able to muster strong resistance.

    For now, the efforts will continue to focus on learning the fate of as many of the dictatorship’s victims as possible. It is unreasonable for the state automatically to expect forgiveness from its torture victims and their families. Nevertheless, by exposing the truth, families will finally be able to begin the natural process of grieving that cowardice, fear and unforgivable apathy on the part of the rest of society has denied them. Only then can a process of national catharsis occur, with Uruguay’s focus now shifting toward future political, social and cultural reforms. By acknowledging the past and taking steps to overcome – but not erase – its history, Uruguayans will be emotionally emboldened to prevent such atrocities in the future.