A young girl poses for a photo at the Plaza de la ciudad de Treinta y Tres, Uruguay. (Photo: libertinus / flickr)
Montevideo, Uruguay - During Uruguay's last dictatorship, which ruled from 1973 to 1985, approximately 200 Uruguayans were forcibly disappeared. Thousands more were held as political prisoners and tortured. In this small country of 3.5 million people, hundreds of thousands fled into exile.
Last Sunday, October 25, voters here had the chance to repeal a controversial amnesty law, which has shielded many officials from prosecution for these crimes. The measure failed, garnering only 48 percent support.
The law, known as the "ley de caducidad," was passed in 1986, after pressure from military officers who refused to appear in court when cited in connection with the dictatorship's crimes. Uruguay's young civilian government quelled military resistance by passing the law.
Other countries here in the Southern Cone, such as Argentina and Chile, have done an about-face in recent years, prosecuting hundreds of former military officials after more than a decade of impunity. But little Uruguay, often referred to as the "Switzerland of the south" for its relative political and economic stability, has opted to move on from the past.
Jeremias Elmasian, a hotelier in Uruguay who did not support the initiative, said over lunch on Saturday before the election that "we have to look to the future."
Beginning in 2007, activists began collecting signatures to place an initiative on the ballot to repeal the law. In June 2009, the electoral court here confirmed that the campaign had turned in 258,326 valid signatures, more than the required 10 percent of the voting population.
Campaign organizers said the law was needed for "truth and justice."
Oscar Lopez Goldaracena, a human rights attorney and proponent of the initiative, said before Sunday's vote that the law was necessary to "put our law in line with international law and to recuperate our ethics."
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights declared the law contrary to the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights in 2008.
Yesterday was not the first time the Uruguayan public challenged the law. In 1989, Uruguayans also voted whether to repeal the law. It lost by a wide margin, 57 to 43.
Some here said that the new referendum was justified because the 1989 referendum was passed under military pressure. The amnesty law was originally passed after military officials refused to appear in court when cited by judges.
Juan Ferreira, who voted for the amnesty law in 1986 as a deputy in Congress, recently said on a television program here, "In this transition, we all had to do things we didn't want to," adding further that, "this is another Uruguay."
There was no organized campaign against repealing the amnesty law, but interviews with Uruguayans over the weekend suggest several reasons why the initiative failed to garner a majority.
Some criticized the revocation campaign, saying that the people had already spoken on the issue when the initiative failed in 1989.
Others, like Gonzalo Aguirre Ramirez, a former senator and former vice president, said that annulling the amnesty law harmed legal stability and was "very dangerous." "Imagine if you get divorced and then you remarry. Then, the state annuls the marriage law and prosecutes you for bigamy. This is the path we're taking."
Aguirre Ramirez also said that the law, which he voted for in 1986 as a senator, "pacified the country, and allowed us to get to elections."
Others said that the amnesty was fair because political prisoners and guerrillas were amnestied as well. Marta Caraballo, a telephone center employee, said she did not vote for the law because "when you lose a war, you lose. We have to move on."
Aguirre Ramirez called the amnesty "a just solution. For 15 years it worked well. We amnestied the tupamaros - the urban guerrilla group, which operated prior to and during the first years of the dictatorship "and the military."
Campaign organizers did not take the defeat as a sign that Uruguayans support the amnesty law. Maria Martinez of the NGO familiars, a group of family members of disappeared Uruguayans, pointed to the mechanics of Uruguay's voting system, where plebiscites are supported by dropping a "yes" flier into an election envelope. A plebiscite needs a majority of the entire voting population. Thus, abstentions are treated equally as voters who oppose the plebiscite. "I don't believe that more people would have voted for the amnesty law than voted against it," she said in an interview on Monday.
Martinez also said that the campaign had a hard time reaching voters in the interior of the country.
Explaining the plebiscite's failure, socialist presidential candidate Jose "Pepe" Mujica, who won the first round of presidential elections for the ruling Frente Amplio coalition with 48 percent of the vote, said in a press conference after the elections that holding plebiscites at the same time as presidential elections "confused" voters. His vice presidential candidate, Daniel Astori, however, said they'd respect the "will of the people."
The Frente Amplio officially supported the revocation campaign, but joined late and only gave tepid support.
Notably, the campaign drew disproportionate support from younger Uruguayans, though many were only children during the last dictatorship. A public party for the vote was scheduled outside of the University of the Republic.
Youth here have been moved by the stories of six Uruguayans, who were kidnapped as children after their parents were assassinated by agents involved in "Plan Condor," a clandestine cooperative campaign between Latin America's military governments to find dissidents and exiles living abroad. The six - Carlos D'Elia, Victoria and Anatole Julien, Macarena Gelman, Mariana Zaffaroni and Amaral Carcia - were all active in the campaign to repeal the amnesty law.
Ramon Centurion, a young employee at a newspaper stand on Montevideo's Avenida 18 de Julio, said the day before the election, "I see the children of the disappeared, their stories, in the newspapers. It gives me goosebumps. There has to be justice." On Tuesday, he was forced to close his stand temporarily as a large march in support of revoking the law made its way down Avenida 18 de Julio, the city's downtown artery. Tens of thousands of people flooded the streets, covering more than 15 city blocks.
Luis Gonzalez, a taxi cab driver, displayed a pink "yes" flier on the inside of his cab, the campaign sign of the anti-amnesty campaign. "They killed people, tortured and kidnapped. It's time they pay," he said, explaining his support for the initiative.
Ironically, the loss is likely to have little practical effect.
On October 19, six days before the election, the Supreme Court here held that the amnesty law was unconstitutional. But due to Uruguay's legal system, the law is not null. The decision has moral force in other cases like it, but is not binding in all cases as it would be in American courts.
Activists said they will continue to challenge the law in court.
Furthermore, several high profile cases against officials from Uruguay's dictatorship have already reached the courts because of an exception written in the amnesty law.
The original amnesty law required all cases against the military to be sent to the president, to determine whether the charged crimes were contemplated by the law. Until 2005, not one case had been declared outside the amnesty. But since then, after Tabare Vazquez assumed office as Uruguay's first leftist president since the dictatorship, several dozen cases have proceeded. Vazquez has excluded cases concerning kidnapped children and homicides against Uruguayan exiles as part of Plan Condor, such as the 1976 murder of Uruguayan politicians Zelmar Michelini and Hector Gutierrez in Buenos Aires.
On Thursday, former Uruguayan dictator Gregorio Alvarez was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his role in the death of 37 people while he was chief of the Army. In another case, Juan Maria Bordabery, the dictatorship's first de facto president, is currently being investigated for the deaths of four Uruguayans, including Michelini and Gutierrez, in Argentina in 1976.
Election night was an emotional roller coaster for supporters of the law. For an American, it felt like a repeat of the 2000 presidential race.
At 8:30 PM, an hour after polls closed, Luis Eduardo Gonzalez, a pollster for Channel 2, announced that the amnesty law was repealed.
At the headquarters of the PIT-CNT, Uruguay's national labor coalition and the principal supporter of the initiative, activists for the campaign screamed in celebration. Union organizer Luis Puig embraced and hugged everyone around him.
But when a press conference was called at 8:45 PM, campaign officials waited outside, crowding around a small television as journalists wondered why nobody showed up to comment.
Then Channel 12 announced it had jumped the gun: The initial exit polls were incorrect. The press conference was delayed until more details emerged. Euphoria at the PIT-CNT sunk into angst, despair and confusion. Relatives of the dictatorship's victims began to cry.
By 9:30 PM, all the networks predicted that the initiative would lose, with 48 percent of the vote.
Finally, at 10:30, in a somber state, Puig, the union's representative on the campaign, reconvened the press conference. Flanked by 12 other activists, he conceded that the initiative was not likely to pass. But, he added, "the fight for truth and justice won't end ... because our society won't allow us to live with impunity."
One activist for the campaign, Lille Caruso, commented on the loss the day after the election, "Evidently, we're still divided."