Uruguay: A Bitter Lesson in Forgiving
by COHA Research Associate Paula
June 7, 2011
Minutes before an initiative that would annul Articles 1, 3, and 4 of the Law of Expiration of 1986 was put to a vote in the Uruguayan Chamber of Representatives, Victor Semproni, a dissident representative of the left-of-center Frente Amplio (Broad Front), announced that he would break ranks and vote against the initiative, thereby nullifying his party’s long-held position. Because the Senate already had passed the initiative, a majority vote in the Chamber of Representatives would be the final requirement for the motion to be ratified into law, making his swing vote particularly critical. If enacted, the initiative would authorize the prosecution and punishment of those who allegedly committed human rights violations during the period of military rule between 1973 and 1985.
After 15 hours of arduous debate, however, the existing amnesty law was upheld at 5:30 in the morning of May 20th by a paper-thin majority of 50 to 49, marking the third reiteration of the current vote to uphold the Ley de Caducidad, or Law of Expiration of 1986. Despite receiving support from various conservative parties, such as the National Party and the Colorado Party, the amnesty law still faces the near-unified opposition from the majority Broad Front party, the Plenario Intersindical de Trabajadores – Convención Nacional de Trabajadores (PIT-CNT) party, human rights groups, as well as groups of mourning mothers. Demands for the repeal of the Expiry Law continue, as the scheduled annual “March of Silence” took place on May 20th, honoring those who had disappeared.
Opposition groups reported to El País that they would continue to fight for the annulment of the Ley de Caducidad, but did not specify their new strategy.] Both the Broad Front and the PIT-CNT were viciously oppressed during the decade-long era of military rule. Such determination to bring down the Expiry Law is indicative of their yearning to end an ongoing period of elusive justice, if not simply a cru di chat for rectitude.
Two Times Over
At the end of the military rule in 1985, a truth commission named the Investigative Commission on the Situation of the Disappeared People and its Causes was formed to investigate the fates of an estimated 200 individuals who disappeared between the years 1973 through 1985. In its final report, the comission documented 164 cases of disappearances, provided precise information to the courts, and blamed the military government for specific human rights infractions. Opposition groups and human rights activists were often fiercely critical of the military’s interference in these investigations. Despite widespread criticism from human rights organizations and a large sector of the Uruguayan population, the Law of Expiration was still ratified by a referendum held three years later in 1989. With the fates of many of the disappeared exhaustively investigated and detailed, the controversy surrounding the disappeared was put to rest, at least for the time being.
But the explosive nature of the desaparecidos was far from forgotten. In 2000, President Jorge Batlle Ibáñez created another truth commission. This one was created to complete the requirements called for in Article Four of the Law of Expiration, which enables the president to mandate an investigation for those who were reported as “disappeared” before the end of December of 1986. The Comisión para la Paz, or Peace Commission, was designed to accrue information, prepare dossiers on the disappeared, and to make recommendations to the government to arrange for reparations based on their analysis. The Commission’s findings, which were published on April 10, 2003, detailed the fates of 32 Uruguayans and 6 Argentines, 25 of whom were killed, cremated, and secretly disposed of in the Río de la Plata by the Armed Forces. Yet despite the mounting evidence of human rights violations, the Armed Forces refused to take responsibility for their role in the disappearances, rightfully infuriating the Uruguayan citizenry.
Theoretically, the Expiry Law would have provided impunity for the military and police accused of human rights violations committed during the dictatorship, but in practice, this law was loosely adhered to. There were multiple instances, especially during the presidency of Tabaré Vázquez (also a member of the leftist Broad Front), in which courts made exceptions for particularly violent cases of the disappeared. Courts rarely chose to prosecute what they deemed as “special cases,” resulting in the conviction of only a relatively small handful of military and police leaders accused of human rights violations. For example, former president and military dictator, Juan María Bordaberry was sentenced to a total of 60 years in prison for suspending the Uruguayan Constitution, abusing executive power, and engaging in the extrajudicial killing of 20 people during his four-year rule between 1972 and 1976. This 2007 case was particularly notable for being the first instance in which the Supreme Court held a leader of his stature accountable for acutely abusing the constitution and for committing human rights violations during his reign.
A second referendum, which coincided with presidential elections, was held in November of 2009. Almost at the same time as the Broad Front candidate, José Mujica, was winning the presidential elections, the amnesty law was being upheld by a slight majority of two percent. Once again, a popular, democratic vote indicated that the majority of the Uruguayan people support impunity, not retribution.
A Step in the Right Direction?
In contrast to Vázquez’s willingness to prosecute human rights malefactions, Mujica has strictly adhered to the provisions of the Law of Expiration despite his background as a guerrilla fighter and the disapproval of his own party (Broad Front). So far, President Mujica has firmly upheld the amnesty law on the basis that ignoring two referendums would undermine the nation’s democratic institutions and its delicate balance of forces. Moreover, in a speech made to the General Assembly on Wednesday May 18th, while the president expressed his deepest sorrow for the families of the disappeared, yet he insisted that frustrations over past military abuses should not be transferred onto today’s military. The President also expressed his concern over the opening of old wounds and reiterated his hopes that the country can look to the future rather than the past.
When considering the case of Uruguay, one must also bear in mind the moral authority of this nation’s leader, José Mujica. The current president was once a political prisoner who served 14 years in a military prison for his involvement with the Tupamaros guerilla movement. Moreover, Mujica’s ally, Semproni, suffered a similar fate; Semproni was imprisoned and tortured for five years for his membership in a liberation movement and for his high-ranking role in two separate labor unions. Both the president and Semproni have first-hand familiarity with the cruelty of Uruguay’s past military rule, but despite heavy pressure from their own respective party, neither of them felt that the annulment of the amnesty law would benefit the fundamental democratic cohesion of their country.
While he still wears scars from the six bullets that struck him, Mujica is taking strides in a positive direction toward reconciliation. The president believes that the government’s respect for the people’s opinion and the democratic vote is the only way to ensure that his country will not slip back into the perils of an autocratic state.
Moreover, Mujica believes that rubbing salt on open wounds and seeking reprisals for past abuses will only further polarize his people. By personally appealing to the previously indecisive Semproni, the president successfully swayed votes in favor of supporting his idea of a more unified Uruguay. While the president’s stance is noble, it is simply too progressive. With a large segment of the population old enough to remember the terror of military rule, it is totally unacceptable to grant their past oppressors the freedom that had been stripped from the Uruguayan people for over a decade.
Backlash and Loopholes
Some have come to believe that, with this most recent vote, the Uruguayans will cease digging up the past and, together, work to build a better country for the future. But another half of the nation has shown that it firmly believes that without punishment, a heinous form of crime is being allowed to thrive.
On May 31st, the Uruguayan Supreme Court declared crimes committed during the dictatorship were in fact serious common crimes (delitos comunes). In contrast to crimes against humanity, which limits prosecution to only 20 years after the accused allegedly committed the crime, common crimes can be prosecuted within 26 years and eight months after the crime took place. This ratification alters the final date to submit an appeal to prosecute to November 1st of 2012. There is a strong movement to include aggravated homicide in the definition of serious common crimes but, currently, the most applicable serious common crime is forced disappearances, which was created by the International Criminal Court in 2006. While Article 15 of Uruguay’s Penal Code prohibits the retroactive application of law, Supreme Court Justice Mariana Motta ruled against five retired military officers charged with the disappearance of Horacio Gelós Bonilla in 1976.
In a pathetic attempt to undermine the judicial system, the lawyers of the five defendants question Justice Motta’s motives, claiming that her participation in the Silent March is evidence of bias and is thus a mitigating obstacle to the application of true justice. But, despite Chief Justice Leslie Van Rompaey’s scoffs of disgust and the bitter discord resonating within the Supreme Court, the ruling has been upheld so far.
One must also remember the delicacy of Uruguayan democratic institutions, which have only operated properly for three and a half decades. In this classic case of minority right versus majority rule, justice has an expiration date. Nevertheless, before the milk of quid pro quo sours, there is at least a chance for a portion of the Uruguayan population to savor their long-awaited and well-deserved retribution for the past hardships they were forced to endure.
References for this article can be found here.