Categorized | Human Rights, Opinion, TOP STORY

27th June: A Silent Anniversary in Uruguay?


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Juan Maria Bordaberry (photo: Wikipedia)

Juan Maria Bordaberry (photo: Wikipedia)

27th June marks the 40th anniversary of Uruguay’s descent into the darkest period of its recent history. In 1973, the then constitutional president, Juan María Bordaberry, dissolved parliament, suspended the constitution, and ushered in a civic-military dictatorship that would rule until 1985. It is worth remembering that 27th June was but the apogee of a tragedy in three acts: on 15th April, 1972, the judiciary was placed under military control; on 9th February, 1973, Bordaberry performed an autogolpe (self-coup) which handed the Executive branch over to the military’s Council of National Security. Finally, 27th June brought down the curtain on, what had been until then, one of Latin America’s most highly developed and inclusive democracies.

What followed was a period of state terrorism akin to the region’s other dictatorships coming to power at the time. The campaign of repression of all social and political opposition involved mass-incarceration, widespread use of torture, Orwellian-style citizen monitoring, and forced disappearances – also enacted in cooperation with the regime’s counterparts across the region through the infamous Operation Condor. Despite the historic significance of the anniversary of the 1973 coup, 27th June remains a day of little importance in the country’s official calendar.

Uruguay should, therefore, establish 27th June as a national day of commemoration, as called for by the human rights organisation of former political prisoners CRYS@L. Not only would it represent a clear rejection of the attack on democracy and an important symbolic reparation to the dictatorship’s victims of human rights abuses and their families, it would furthermore provide an important space for coalescence around which a multiplicity of actors could voice their memories of the past.

Memory vs. Silence

With discussions about remembering the past, the somewhat clichéd adage of ‘he who forgets history is condemned to repeat it’ immediately springs to mind. While this may well be true at the individual level, at a collective and institutional level it is more appropriate to talk about selective memories, or selective forgetting.

Libertad prison, formerly a detention centre during the military dictatorship (photo by elNico on flickr)

Libertad prison, formerly a detention centre during the military dictatorship (photo by elNico on flickr)

Following the assertions of scholar Elizabeth Jelin, it becomes clear that societies or institutions do not forget; rather, they tend to choose what to remember. As such, the process of establishing a collective memory becomes a conflictual one, with different groups and institutions competing to impose their own selective memory on the collective. As Jelin posits, ‘we should not think about debates between memory and silence, but one of opposing memories, each of them with its own silences and voids.’

Following the return to democracy in 1985, the Uruguayan State’s selective memory was embodied in the Ley de Caducidad (Expiry Law) amnesty law, which granted impunity to military and security personnel for the human rights abuses during the dictatorship. President Sanguinetti’s famous phrase, ‘no hay que tener ojos en la nuca’ (you mustn’t have eyes in the back of your head), summed up the government’s emphasis on the need to focus on future rather than the past.

Memory Projects against Impunity

In response to the State’s silence regarding the dictatorship’s crimes, the Uruguayan human rights community and civil society established various mechanisms to challenge impunity, based on demands for truth and justice, and, by doing so, championed their memories of human rights violations and state terrorism. Most emblematic is the Marcha del Silencio (March of Silence), held every 20th May since 1996, in which thousands march to commemorate disappeared-detainees, symbolically repudiating impunity and state denial in a silent demonstration along Montevideo’s main avenue.

Other acts included the holding of two popular consultations in 1989 and 2009 to overturn the Expiry Law, the publication of the SERPAJ Never Again report into the dictatorship’s atrocities in 1989, the construction of a memorial to commemorate disappeared-detainees inaugurated in 2001, the opening of a Cultural Centre and Museum of Memory in 2007 in Montevideo, as well as the tireless efforts by victims, relatives, and human rights lawyers to breach impunity by denouncing past abuses to the domestic criminal justice system.

Museo de la Memoria in Montevideo (photo: Wikipedia)

Museo de la Memoria in Montevideo (photo: Wikipedia)

Although the State’s preference for denial and impunity slowly began to change under the left-wing Frente Amplio governments in power since 2005, the current government is yet to fully embrace the cause of justice.
The historic overturning of the Expiry Law in October 2011, precipitated by the Inter-American Court of Human Right’s decision in the Gelman versus Uruguay case and sustained civil society pressure over time, was as much a victory against state silence on the dictatorship’s crimes as an advancement towards greater accountability for past atrocities.

A National Day of Memory

Thus far, we have only spoken about two conflicting memories with Uruguayan society: that of the State and of the human rights community. However, these are not the only memories and voices competing for to be heard. Academics and journalists, just as other social groups, also have selective memories.

In the build-up to the 40th anniversary of the coup, there has been a plethora of events, discussions, and commemorations organised by civil society organisations, universities, and trades unions, all of which are legitimate memories and explore the different impacts of the 1973 coup. The PIT-CNT trade union, in particular, is commemorating the anniversary of the longest general strike in the country’s history – which began on the same day as the coup – and celebrating the example of popular resistance it represented in the response to the takeover. Other activities and roundtables on varied issues such as exile, the role of art, literature, theatre, and archives of the repression, are organised by Montevideo City Hall.

Once again, the Uruguayan State is strikingly absent but not surprisingly so; in fact, it has largely left it to victims, survivors, and activists to disseminate the truth about past atrocities, gather information and evidence to prosecute those responsible, and commemorate past crimes. Uruguay very much lags behind in fulfilling its positive obligations under international human rights law to provide victims with remedies for the violations suffered in terms of truth, justice, and reparations.

Given the existence of a wide range of memory projects and the legitimation of the memories of human rights abuses on the collective memory, it would be reasonable to ask what difference a non-working national day of commemoration would make. If those affected have already carved out spaces – both materially and symbolically – in order to memorialise state terrorism and its victims, what would giving everyone else a day off achieve?

Memorial to Disappeared in Montevideo (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Memorial to Disappeared in Montevideo (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In a practical sense, it seems unrealistic to think that the whole of society will automatically come together in rejection of the coup and the subsequent atrocities; indeed, for some, it will just be another day off to dedicate to private and personal endeavours. Moreover, it would be naïve to think that such an event would put an end to the conflictual nature of memorialising the dictatorship, or automatically set in motion a process of critical self-criticism over the past.

There are several things it would achieve, however. As a gesture by the state it would carry important symbolic value. On the one hand, by providing a shared platform and marker around which to coalesce, it would recognise the wide range of memory practices within society. On the other, and perhaps more importantly, it would represent an acknowledgment of the need to remember the violence and abuses that emanated from the state itself. Such an admission of mea culpa would carry great symbolic weight.

While of course there is the danger that the state could monopolise commemorations, which we would not wish to see happen, nevertheless the establishment of a national day of commemoration in 2013 would be of particular importance and symbolic value owing to recent events (the transfer of Judge Mota and sentences by the Supreme Court of Justice) to prove an official commitment to truth, justice, memory, and reparations for dictatorship crimes.

Furthermore, it would send a signal that 27th June is a day of national importance that all Uruguayans – not just the victims or mobilized civil society – should be remembering, offering a venue in which to discuss and debate the dictatorship and its legacies in public and social spaces for the whole of society to come to terms with Uruguay’s recent history.

Pierre-Louis Le Goff is a research assistant at the Latin American Centre, University of Oxford, and a member of the committee for Crimes Against Humanity at the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (APDH), Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Dr Francesca Lessa is a specialist in issues of justice and human rights in Uruguay based at the Latin American Centre and St. Anne’s College, University of Oxford.

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24th March marks the anniversary of the 1976 coup that brought Argentina's last dictatorship to power, a bloody seven year period in which thousands of citizens were disappeared and killed. Many of the victims passed through ESMA, a clandestine detention centre turned human rights museum

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