In my academic year in Uruguay, I was lucky enough to be able to witness two tumultuous events which mobilized a nation: the World Cup (Scotland could learn a few things) and the national elections, won by the popular centre-left coalition, the Frente Amplio.
Yet a detail which escaped most of the international press was a little vote which took place at the same time as the national elections. A vote which could have annulled the law granting impunity to those who committed crimes during the dictatorship. This was an issue which had mobilized fellow students in a more profound way than the elections; a leftover from the dictatorship which they felt had to be dealt with before Uruguay could move on.
Around 300 people “disappeared” in Uruguay during the dictatorship; others were killed in Argentina as part of an agreement which was made between Latin American dictators but which enjoyed US approval, Plan Condor. Children were snatched from their activist parents and given to adoptive parents, along with a new name and identity.
The issue is far from forgotten in Uruguay, and there are yearly marches to commemorate the
dead, especially the marcha del silencio, which is held in silence, with relatives of victims holding photos and candles. There is also a museum dedicated to victims of the dictatorship and the parque de la memoria, in the historic workers district of El Cerro, a previous anarchist stronghold singled out for particular repression during the dictatorship.
Yet for many this is not enough: they say it is not possible that those who killed and tortured could be walking around as free men. After a string of prosecutions in Argentina and neighbouring countries for dictatorship-era crimes and with the approval of the ruling Frente Amplio, a campaign was launched for a national referendum on the issue.
Alongside university friends, including Mariana, who lost an uncle during the dictatorship, we campaigned tirelessly and I remember listening to Eduardo Galeano address a mass rally on the eve of the vote, when thousands of Uruguayans took to the streets to demand justice from their fellow citizens. They sang the national anthem with special sentiment, especially pronouncing the words “tiranos temblar” (tyrants beware), just as they had during the dictatorship. The mood was incredibly optimistic and the streets were strewn with pink posters and banners, to match the piece of paper with which one could vote to scrap the law.
On election night, I was sitting with my extremely Frenteamplista host family: Gabriel, an ex urban-guerrilla and prisoner during the dictatorship; and Roxanna, who worked in a cooperative during the dictatorship and had suffered repression. When it began to emerge that the vote had been lost, there was not a dry eye in the house. The same could be said about the following day at university, where the usual hustle and bustle was replaced with a stunned silence.
Commenting on the result of the referendum, Amelia Lopez, who campaigned to annul the law previously 20 years ago, argues that “the national elections and the referendums on overseas voting and on the impunity law should not have been held together. This meant that a lot of people…got confused. And deep inside I also feel that the left didn’t support the plebiscites as it should have: it kept quiet in order to win the elections.”
As a friend commented, “Today they say that it’s over, that it was a decision made democratically, that it was the choice of the entire nation and that we have to respect that decision, obviously still maintaining that we are ashamed of the law and that it shouldn’t exist. As for me, the truth is I don’t know what to think”. The main strategy for campaigners now is to concentrate on the argument that continued impunity breaches international law and thus should be scrapped, as argues Óscar López Goldaracena, the human rights lawyer who led the annulment campaign.
One of the last rallies I attended in el paisito was the Marcha del Silencio on the 20th of May, one of the largest in memory. One thing is for sure, we haven’t heard the last of those demanding “memoria and justicia” in Uruguay.