Uruguay: The Right to the Truth

June 30, 2011

On May 20, the Uruguayan Chamber of Deputies voted down a proposal to annul a law that protects former members of the military and police from being prosecuted for human rights abuses. Under the country’s dictatorship (1973–1985), the Uruguayan Armed Forces disappeared about 300 people and imprisoned an estimated 8,700 political prisoners, most of whom were tortured, according to the Uruguayan Peace Commission and the Peace and Justice Service in Latin America. The debate over the law, known as the Law on the Expiration of the Punitive Claims of the State, has ripped apart the ruling Broad Front (FA) coalition—with members of the Communist Party and the social-democratic New Space party clashing with the Popular Participation Movement (MPP) and the Progressive Alliance. The latter two currents sided with President José Mujica, who urged the congressional deputies not to annul the law because it would undermine the results of two popular referendums already held on the issue (1989, 2009), in which voters upheld the amnesty law. The congressional move to annul lost by one vote. The request by Mujica—a former political prisoner and torture survivor—shocked many who hoped that former members of the dictatorship would finally be brought to justice.


The history of the repression goes back at least to 1972, when President Jorge Pacheco Areco decreed a state of “internal war” and authorized the use of “necessary means to repress the actions of individuals or groups who conspire against the homeland in whatever way.” With support from death squads and U.S. police training, the Uruguayan military unleashed a bloody campaign of mass arrests, forced disappearances, and torture against the National Liberation Movement (MLN), an urban guerrilla group commonly known as the Tupamaros, as well as against the general population. The dictatorship was formally installed the following year, when President Juan María Bordaberry dissolved the General Assembly. By then, the Tupamaros had already been largely defeated, yet the repression continued. 


With the return to democracy, the Tupamaros joined electoral politics in 1989, co-founding the MPP, a member group of the FA coalition. Led by Mujica, a former Tupamaro, and composed of other radical groups like the Socialist Workers Party and the Party for the Victory of the People, the MPP quickly grew into the largest, most popular current within the FA. With the MPP’s support, FA candidate Tabaré Vázquez was elected president in 2004. Just three months into his term, Vázquez announced that excavations would begin in police barracks to look for the remains of the disappeared. This move built off of the work done by the Peace Commission, established by President Jorge Batlle in 2000 to investigate the dictatorship’s abuses. But the struggle to recover the truth continues, as the theory of “two demons”—in which responsibility for the violence rests equally on the shoulders of Communist subversives and the dictatorship—appears to have been recently revived.


The following is excerpted from an interview published in the progressive Uruguayan weekly Brecha. Interviewed are Ignacio Errandonea, Gimena Gómez Gadea, and Eduardo Pirotto, members of the Mothers and Family Members of Disappeared and Detained Uruguayans (MFUDD), an organization formally founded in 1983. According to Brecha, Errandonea has fought for decades to discover the fate of his brother Juan Pablo, who was kidnapped in Buenos Aires in 1976. Gómez has likewise been searching to know what happened to her aunt Nelsa Zulema Gadea Galán, a student activist who was kidnapped in 1973, in Santiago, Chile. Pirotto has worked with the organization since 2000, compiling testimonies.


This interview was originally published May 20, the day that the Uruguayan congress failed to annul the amnesty law, which is also the day of the yearly March of Silence for the disappeared. Editing and translation by NACLA. Reproduced with permission.


How do you see this particular moment of crisis in the FA and the widespread confusion caused by the amnesty law?


Gimena Gómez: It’s worrisome, and that’s why we issued a communiqué.1 We believe that the very essence of the issue is being blurred. [The congressional deputies] ended up debating over this or that person’s reaction, over measures considered unconstitutional, and not the heart of the issue. That’s why we wanted to come out and contribute something in-depth for those participating in the debate and for the population. Even we had for a moment lost the focus of the discussion. 


You have emphasized the need for truth, something that few people speak of. The investigation into abuses committed under the dictatorship seems to have been permanently left off the public agenda.


Ignacio Errandonea: We work with a concept of impunity that goes beyond the amnesty law, which is the most visible legal aspect. Impunity is much more global. In the law itself, Article 4 demands that the Executive Branch investigate human rights abuses. [Former Uruguayan president Julio María] Sanguinetti did the ridiculous by naming a military prosecutor to this position [in 1987]. That’s like having [Uruguayan bank embezzler Juan Peirano] investigate whether they bankrupted the bank or not . . .
They could have found the truth, but they didn’t because they have not exerted even the tiniest effort to find it. Under Batlle, with the Peace Commission, there were some good intentions, but they were very timid. Later came the efforts under the Tabaré Vázquez government. He ordered the Armed Forces to investigate, and they lied to him like a dog. We told the presidential office that they had lied, we proved the lies, and nothing happened. I mean, they made it so that the Armed Forces are institutionally a separate entity. If I lie while under oath, I am punished. But the military lies and nothing happens. There are archives from the Armed Forces’ intelligence services, but they don’t open them and you can’t touch them.


During the previous period [under the Vázquez administration], there were excavations in military buildings. What happened with these investigations under the present government?


Gómez: Yes, they are still excavating. The issue is that there was a timid period that was begun with the Peace Commission’s tepid announcements, which achieved something important: For the first time an official government organ said that there was no war in the country and dismantled the theory of “two demons.” The current debate has carried us back to before Batlle, because it has rejected what was already politically and scientifically settled: that there was no internal war and that what you had instead was state terrorism.


And what do you attribute the current situation to? Could the presence of MLN members in high levels of government have something to do with it?


Errandonea: I think there are members of the Popular Participation Movement who aren’t comfortable with a part of the MLN that is a little near-sighted, that understands that the government waged war against them but forget that there was also a war on the Uruguayan people. The declaration of the internal state of war meant repression for everyone. We were arrested right and left without having anything to do with the MLN. The dictatorship was created after the Tupamaros’ military apparatus was already defeated. For me there is a misunderstanding over what happened historically. And I can’t understand their perspective. From a human point of view, they are very close to us, but as a political power, they don’t exercise it to find solutions. We have already had six interviews with the presidential chief of staff. We came to some basic agreements to create a small investigative commission, but so far nothing has materialized. We need a presidential decree. 


And this commission hasn’t been formally created?


Gómez: The Secretariat for Continuing the Peace Commission was created [in 2003] to continue the work of the Peace Commission. It was in this framework that work was done during the Vázquez administration and the excavations in the military barracks began. However, the secretariat lapsed at the end of his term. This office is now working at about 20% of its capacity. It has no powers to move. What we ask is that it be restructured and strengthened, because if we don’t give this issue a big push, it is going to go on forever. Finding the remains is important to us as individuals, but the truth, justice, and the cleansing of the Armed Forces are fundamental for all of society to grow and progress. 


Eduardo Pirotto: I am convinced that in a few short days we have actually lost ground at the root of all of these problems that have cost us blood, sweat, and tears. The Latin American Federation of Associations of Family Members of Disappeared Detainees (FEDEFAM) has done a lot in the United Nations to enshrine the right not to be disappeared. Lately this has been made almost inconsequential, and I think it has something to do with these [former Tupamaros] on the government staff who feel as though they are morally superior. They can say, “I was a combatant.”


There are those that say that your organization, MFUDD, hasn’t supported legal action because it works more in the area of the truth than in justice. In other words, that you believe more in promoting investigation through political negotiation rather than through the judicial process.


Errandonea: We have always been rooted in the truth, justice, memory, and “never again.” We try to work in all of these areas. In terms of the truth—and this is my personal opinion—I come from a place of believing that we are not going to get the truth from the accused. The justice system in this country doesn’t have the technical means to act. Even if they give the judges all of the archives and the boxes they have found, they wouldn’t be able to use them, because they don’t have the means to digitize them. We have wagered on obtaining the truth through other means. Yes, we have discussed if every case should be brought to trial, or where to find the truth, but they are different ways of looking at the problem. 


But the theme of the truth for us goes much further. I know my brother Pablo is dead, but he is also disappeared. I can’t be 100% sure, and I can’t resolve this pain if I don’t have the truth. And this urgency over the truth happened to my mother. In 2006 we had a meeting with then chief of staff Gonzalo Fernández, who said, Yes, the military lied to us, but what do you want? Do you want us to torture them? My mother, who was already old, told me [his voice shaking], I’m going to have to look for Pablo someplace else, because here . . . and the next day she passed away.


Something similar happened with Luz [Ibarburu, co-founder of MFUDD]. We had a meeting with the Ministry of Defense in which they told us that there was nothing they could do. She left completely demoralized, and within a few days she died. There is a part of this emotional experience that can’t be expressed in words and that isn’t understood from the political point of view. Often the government doesn’t understand this need for the truth. I always tell Chief of Staff Alberto Breccia: [MFUDD co-founder] Luisa [Cuesta] is 90 years old. How many more elders are going to have to die without knowing what happened to their sons and daughters?


Rosario Touriño is a journalist who writes for the Uruguayan progressive weekly Brecha (brecha.com/uy)


1. Madres y Familiares de Uruguayos Detenidos-Desaparecidos, “Aportes de Familiares y su profundo y meditado sentir,” May 11, 2011, familiaresdedesaparecidos.blogspot.com.


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