On November 30, Uruguayans will head to the polls to vote in the presidential runoff between Frente Amplio candidate Tabaré Vázquez and Blanco candidate Louis Lacalle Pou. The election remains important because the winner will determine whether the Frente Amplio has a majority in parliament. The vote is also significant because it marks thirty years since elections were held to return Uruguay to democracy after a period of military rule that began in 1973.
Despite some significant measures on the part of the government to address to the crimes of the dictatorship, which include a public apology and truth commission, many human rights groups within the country continue to fight for accountability regarding crimes committed during this period, including investigations into those who were disappeared, the systematic use of torture and the whereabouts of children who were separated from imprisoned parents.
Last week, in an effort led by Francesca Lessa of the University of Oxford, sixty academics around the world signed an open letter to the two candidates asking that they commit to addressing these impunity issues. (In the interest of full disclosure, the author of this article was also a signatory). An excerpt from the letter, which was distributed to the Uruguayan press, is included here:
Solicitamos que el nuevo gobierno adopte estas prioridades como urgentes en su mandato:
1) Remover todos los obstáculos que bloquean la denuncia de violaciones de derechos humanos y el avance de los procesos judiciales en los tribunales sin más demoras injustificadas e indebidas;
2) Establecer un mecanismo oficial para investigar todos los crímenes de la dictadura –desde las desapariciones forzadas y la tortura, incluidas la violencia de género y violaciones contra mujeres y niños y los crímenes sexuales, y las ejecuciones sumarias, a la violación de los derechos laborales y de la libertad de expresión y los delitos económicos- y que abarque un universo amplio de todas sus víctimas;
3) Continuar progresando con el diseño y la implementación de políticas públicas de reparación integral para las víctimas, con reparaciones simbólicas y materiales, dirigidas a todas las diferentes categorías de víctimas. La reparación, que comprende el derecho a la verdad, como dijera la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, abarca no solo a las víctimas directas y sus familiares sino a la sociedad toda, que «tiene el irrenunciable derecho de conocer la verdad sobre lo que ha ocurrido…con el propósito de evitar una repetición de hechos similares en el futuro.
Silence and amnesty
The impetus behind sending the letter derived from the almost complete absence of discussions of accountability in the presidential campaign.
In September, the executive director of Amnesty International Uruguay, Mariana Labastie, met with the major Uruguay presidential candidates to discuss the topic. While Lacalle Pou indicated that he would investigate where the remains of the disappeared were, he said he believed that the tenets of the Ley de Caducidad, or amnesty law, should still be upheld.
The position is puzzling, not least because the law was overturned by Parliament in 2011. Despite the fact that widespread trials have not been pursued subsequently (due to the removal of key judges and a claim of statute of limitations from the Supreme Court), it is no longer officially on the books in Uruguay. It may be worth noting that Lacalle Pou’s father, who was president from 1990-1995, had a dismal record on accountability.
Vázquez, the Frente Amplio candidate, has been fairly silent on how he will proceed with accountability issues if he is given a second term in the presidency. However, he may hold the best record of any president since the transition when it comes to initiatives for human rights. Despite the fact that they Ley de Caducidad was under effect during his term in office, he used article 4 of the law, where the executive could exempt cases, to allow more than 45 trials for crimes committed during the dictatorship to move forward. This resulted in the trials of two former presidents and various officials.
Under José Mujica, who is from the same party, the country has seen significantly less progress has been made, which many human rights groups argue is due to his own history as a member of the Tupamaros guerrilla group and his desire to keep these issues out of the press.
Former candidate Pedro Bordaberry, whose father was the first civilian figurehead of the military regime, only won about 13 percent of the vote in the first round of voting and therefore will not appear on the ballot on November 30. However, the crimes committed under his father’s regime will continue to be an issue in the country, and the academics supporting the letter hope that the next president will address these concerns, particularly as many of the survivors enter advanced age and hope to see justice in their lifetimes. In the upcoming runoff, there is far more at stake than just the parliamentary majority.