Of Light and Struggle: Social Justice, Human Rights, and Accountability in Uruguay (Review)

Debbie Sharnak’s book traces the shifting meanings of human rights in Uruguay’s descent into authoritarianism and continued struggle for justice and accountability.

June 21, 2023

Of Light and Struggle, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2023.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the start of Uruguay’s military dictatorship. On June 27, 1973, President Juan María Bordaberry shut down Parliament and ceded power to the armed forces. The so-called autogolpe (self-coup) initiated 12 years of brutal authoritarianism in a nation known for stable democratic rule.

Latin America’s Cold War regimes had their own signature markers of terror. In the case of Uruguay, the military arrested one in every 50 people, the highest rate of political imprisonment in the world. Between 300,000 and 400,000 citizens fled into exile, a staggering figure in a country of three million. Uruguay’s return to civilian rule in 1985 coincided with a wave of democratic transitions that swept the region. Unlike its Southern Cone neighbors, however, Uruguay’s transition did not include truth commissions or military trials. In 1986, Parliament hastily passed the Ley de Caducidad, an amnesty law that effectively absolved the armed forces from punishment for their crimes. Despite widespread campaigns against impunity, citizens voted to uphold amnesty twice until it was finally repealed in 2011.

In her timely book Of Light and Struggle: Social Justice, Human Rights, and Accountability in Uruguay, historian Debbie Sharnak brings readers through Uruguay’s descent into authoritarianism and its long and open-ended struggle for human rights, justice, and accountability. Her deeply researched look at contemporary Uruguay makes a compelling and convincing argument for the nation’s role in shaping modern human rights and international protections and norms. Uruguay may seem at first like a surprising case study. Its size and location, sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil, have often meant that the country is overlooked in studies of the Cold War and human rights. Yet according to Sharnak, it was precisely these features that positioned Uruguay to have an outsized influence on the rise of transnational human rights movements and the reorientation of U.S. foreign policy concerns in the 1970s.

The history of human rights in Latin America has tended to place the most emphasis on freedom from torture, disappearance, and imprisonment. The violence of Latin America’s military dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s infused struggles to protect the physical safety of citizens with an urgency that confined human rights to a strategic and narrow set of terms and demands. But as Sharnak shows, human rights were never static. Its meanings shifted over time based on political necessity and circumstance. In their fight against the regime, Uruguayan activists, students, labor leaders, and politicians drew frequently upon a broad rights vision that predated the dictatorship and that was grounded in the nation’s unique traditions of social and economic justice. When civilian rule was restored in the 1985, multiple and competing rights discourses shaped Uruguay’s new democracy, sometimes with paradoxical results.

Uruguay’s language of rights has political roots dating to the nation’s formidable two-time President José Batlle y Ordóñez, who governed from 1903 to 1907, and 1911 to 1915. Batlle oversaw the creation of a robust welfare state that offered citizens a range of social and economic protections, including labor rights, public education, progressive taxation, and public health. At an international level, Uruguayan delegates to the United Nations championed the country’s democratic projects as they worked to include human rights in the organization’s charter and mission. For many, this era of stability and international collaboration made Uruguay a país de excepción in the region.

Among the many strengths of Sharnak’s study is her unromanticized view of Uruguayan history. Rare is the book that fails to mention Uruguay as the “Switzerland of South America.” Against this common trope, Sharnak highlights the cracks built into Uruguay’s reputation for progress and inclusion. By the early 1960s, Uruguay’s welfare state entered crisis as its export-based development model began to falter. Growing anti-communist sentiment and calls for austerity emboldened conservative politicians and their military allies. The Tupamaros, a Cuba-inspired revolutionary movement that advocated for armed struggle, has received the most attention in histories of this period. But Sharnak widens the scope to examine a range of student groups and labor coalitions that also fought against government repression in an increasingly polarized Cold War climate. Though these groups differed in their platforms for social and political change, they all framed their demands in reference to the welfare protections and rights language that had been forged during the first part of the twentieth century.

Unlike in neighboring Argentina, Chile, and Brazil, where the armed forces seized power in violent coups, Uruguay’s descent into authoritarianism proceeded in fits and starts. By the time of the 1973 autogolpe, civil protections had already been eroded and leftist parties outlawed.

Uruguay’s fall into military rule and its extended transition back to civilian government challenge the sharp distinctions scholars often make between dictatorship and democracy in Latin America. Sharnak’s demonstration that these categories are not always so clear cut is another major contribution of her book.

As the dictatorship tightened its violent grip on society, Uruguayans in exile helped enable the rise of transnational human rights movements. Because of the high rate of exile from the country, most organizing against the regime happened initially outside of Uruguay. Activists adopted a multilevel approach. They tried to shame the regime into complying with international norms, while lobbying NGOs, foundations, and foreign governments to pressure the dictatorship through bilateral relations. To garner the widest possible support, they also redefined human rights to focus more narrowly on protections from physical violence and political imprisonment, moving away from the revolutionary language of the 1960s.

Timing and Uruguay’s relatively small size played important roles in consolidating its place in global human rights activism. For Amnesty International, which was just beginning to shift its strategy to national campaigns, and for the newly formed WOLA (Washington Office on Latin America), Uruguay proved a perfect “test case” for their institutional priorities. The spotlight on Uruguay also drew the attention of the U.S. government, which had begun to shift aspects of its diplomatic agenda towards human rights following the Vietnam War and Watergate. Officials in the Carter administration determined that the United States had “little to lose diplomatically” in Uruguay, which enabled local diplomats and embassy officials to be more forthright in their denunciations of the regime. As for the dictatorship, military leaders proved remarkably sensitive to international campaigns, and they responded with their own perverse human rights language to justify continued repression.

Uruguayan activists and exiles crafted a coherent rights narrative centered on political persecution and torture that was morally grounded and designed to unify a range of national and international actors against the regime. Standout parts of this excellent book look closely at the limitations of that approach. The fight against the dictatorship obscured the human rights violations perpetrated by the regime against marginalized groups like Jews, Afro-Uruguayans, and the LGBTQI+ community. These groups are rarely included in histories of the dictatorship. As Sharnak skillfully demonstrates, human rights advocacy could also uphold national myths of inclusivity and tolerance, rendering other rights violations invisible.

If Uruguay’s descent into dictatorship was gradual, the same could be said of its protracted transition back to civilian rule. In 1980 the military, weakened by international campaigns and a brewing economic crisis, held a plebiscite to vote “yes” or “no” on a constitutional extension of its authority. The regime lost by a 57 to 43 percent margin. Given that a similar plebiscite in Chile had recently consolidated Augusto Pinochet’s power, the results shocked Uruguayans across political divides. Though it would still be another four years until constitutional rule was restored, the 1980 plebiscite emboldened mobilization again the regime. During this time, an active domestic human rights movement emerged. Groups like El Servicio Paz y Justicia (SERPAJ, The Peace and Justice Service) and Madres y Familiares de Uruguayos Detenidos Desaparecidos (Mothers and Relatives of Detained and Disappeared Uruguayans) forged regional connections, especially with Argentina, which was emerging from its own military dictatorship in the early 1980s. Unions and student associations also reconstituted after the plebiscite. These groups joined human rights organizations in advocating for freedom for political prisoners, but the main thrust of their efforts called for labor protections and university autonomy, demands that harkened back to claims for social and economic justice that had shaped political life prior to the dictatorship.

“What will human rights mean now?” one student newspaper asked shortly after the 1985 inauguration of Julio María Sanguinetti, Uruguay’s first democratically elected president following the end of the dictatorship. That question and the competing rights agendas that emerged during the early transition years defined Uruguayan democracy going forward.

The book’s final chapters look at the events leading up to the passage of the 1986 Ley de Caducidad and the failed 1989 referendum to repeal it. As Sharnak argues, amnesty for military leaders was not a foregone conclusion. When Parliament voted in favor of amnesty, it did so quickly and clumsily in the name of protecting Uruguay’s fragile democracy. The amnesty immediately sparked a campaign that briefly united various groups in a fight against impunity. By the late 1980s, however, Uruguayan activists could no longer count on the same level of transnational support compared to the previous decade as international human rights organizations shifted their focus from Uruguay and the Southern Cone to Central America. The eventual failure of the referendum constituted a bitter defeat for human rights groups. For some, it confirmed the ongoing power of the military to condition constitutional rule. It also revealed what Sharnak terms the “paradoxical cost” of human rights successes. In the 1970s, Uruguayan activists had used a powerful human rights language to challenge authoritarianism. As “human rights” came to be invoked in a variety of other spheres following the return to democracy, it could also deflect attention away from a focus on accountability for the military’s crimes.

The history of human rights “[does] not proceed in a linear, progressive, or triumphant manner,” Sharnak concludes. In the years after the 1989 referendum, as new rights frontiers opened in the realms of abortion protections, same sex marriage, and affirmative action for Afro-Uruguayans, the struggle for justice for the dictatorship’s victims never ceased.

Of Light and Struggle is a beautifully written study that exemplifies the possibilities of transnational histories attuned to the promise and limits of global solidarity movements and their local expressions. Sharnak deftly moves between Latin America, the United States, and Europe, and her account brings together actors and institutions that are typically analyzed in isolation from one another or left out altogether from narratives of recent Uruguayan history. Eminently readable and moving, the book is a major contribution to the history of human rights and democracy in Latin America, and to the study of ongoing movements to build more just societies.

Jennifer Adair is an Associate Professor of History at Fairfield University. She is the author of In Search of the Lost Decade: Everyday Rights in Post-Dictatorship Argentina (University of California Press, 2020).

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