A silent anniversary in Uruguay?

It’s time for Uruguay to make the anniversary of the military coup a national day of remembrance.

Uruguay's dictatorship involved mass incarceration, torture and forced disappearances [AP]

June 27 marks the 40th anniversary of Uruguay’s descent into the darkest period of its recent history. In 1973, the then constitutional president, Juan Maria Bordaberry, dissolved parliament and suspended the constitution, ushering in a civic-military dictatorship that would rule until 1985.

It is worth remembering that June 27 was but the apogee of a tragedy in three acts: on April 15, 1972, the judiciary was placed under military control; on February 9, 1973, Bordaberry performed an autogolpe (self-coup) which handed the executive branch over to the military’s Council of National Security. Finally, June 27 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 monitoring of its citizens and forced disappearances – also enacted in cooperation with the regime’s counterparts across the region through the infamous Operation Condor. Yet despite the historic significance of the anniversary of the 1973 coup, June 27 remains a day of little importance in the country’s official calendar.

Uruguay should, therefore, establish June 27 as a national day of commemoration, as called for by the human rights organisation of former political prisoners Crysol[Sp]. 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 people to voice their memories of the past.

Memory versus silence

With discussions about remembering the past, the somewhat cliched 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. 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 conflicting 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, or Expiry Law, which granted amnesty to military and security personnel for human rights abuses committed during the dictatorship. President Sanguinetti’s famous phrase, “no hay que tener ojos en la nuca” (you must not have eyes in the back of your head), summed up the government’s emphasis on the need to focus on the future rather than the past.

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 May 20 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. 

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Other acts included holding two popular consultations in 1989 and 2009 to overturn the Expiry Law, publication of the SERPAJ Never Again report into the dictatorship’s atrocities in 1989, construction of a Memorial to commemorate Disappeared Detainees inaugurated in 2001, 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.

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 Rights’ 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 within 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, like 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 40th anniversary of the longest general strike in the country’s history that began on the same day as the coup, and celebrating the example of popular resistance it represented in response to the takeover. Other activities and roundtables on 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?

In practice, 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 conflicting nature of memorialising the dictatorship, or automatically set in motion a process of self-criticism of 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.

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 June 27 is a day of national importance that all Uruguayans – not just the victims or mobilised 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.

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

Pierre-Louis LeGoff 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.

Follow him on Twitter: @P_LeGoff