As José Mujica left the presidency last week and transferred power to his fellow Frenteamplista, Tabaré Vázquez, the world’s media lamented the departure of the “pauper president.”
Mujica captured global attention over the past five years for his liberal policies — he legalized gay marriage, passed the region’s least restrictive abortion laws, accepted Guantánamo detainees and pushed through a bill for the government to regulate and sell marijuana in the small Southern Cone nation.
As if that weren’t enough, his policies were wrapped in a cult of personality. In addition to being a former guerrilla and political prisoner during the country’s dictatorship, Mujica donated much of his presidential salary to charity, lived in a small house outside the main city and drove an old beat-up Volkswagen Beetle. He even flouted the dress code of world diplomats, refusing to wear a tie even when he met President Obama at the White House.
While this all made for great copy and inspired many around the world, one of the unresolved issues Mujica is passing to Vázquez is the issue of accountability for crimes committed during the nation’s period of military rule from 1973-1985.
On the 30th anniversary of the nation’s transition back to democratic rule, Mujica peacefully handed power to a member of the leftist coalition — a move that would have seemed almost impossible three decades ago. This coming weekend, March 14, will mark the 30th anniversary of the release from jail of the last political prisoners of Uruguay’s dictatorship.
While these anniversaries should be celebrated as signs of the great strides the country has made in the intervening thirty years, Mujica leaves behind five years that actually saw a backsliding in efforts for justice from this dark period in the nation’s history.
Mujica refused to use his political capital to push for more accountability for crimes committed during the dictatorship, which invited harsh critique from many human rights groups and fellow former members of the Tupamaro guerrilla group.
Despite a 2011 Inter-American Court decision that encouraged further trials and truth-seeking measures, Uruguay’s Supreme Court applied a statute of limitations while sidelining zealous judges such as Mariana Mota who sought to move forward with trials. Because Mujica had suffered along with so many others in the country in the nation’s torture chambers, his blind eye toward the issue was startling for many in the human rights community.
Vázquez’s resumption of the presidency, however, is producing some renewed hope within the country. As Francesca Lessa laid out earlier this month, more progress was seen on accountability during his first 2005-2010 presidency than any other period in Uruguay’s history.
Vázquez has already formed a Working Group on Truth and Justice, which is supposed to investigate crimes that were committed as well as monitor and report on trial progress and reparations. This action provides an important presidential backing for accountability measures that was all-too-absent during Mujica’s presidency.
“Too much time”
However, it is too early to tell what effect this new body might have. In the meantime, it is more pressing to recognize just how much time has passed since the country transitioned back to democracy.
In a 2013 report, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, Pablo de Greiff, visited Montevideo and noted that because many of the victims and their relatives are at an advanced age, it is necessary to pursue justice in the immediate future.
A recent New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert on Nazi trials also recognized this dilemma. Germany is currently pursuing a third wave of trials against former Nazis in the country, but she notes that “way too much time” has passed, as many possible defendants are passing away before they can be held accountable.
Kolbert asks the poignant question: “What does it say about the law’s capacity for self-correction that the correction came only when it no longer really matters?” She follows up by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who extolled the long arc of justice but also noted that, “in this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late.”
Uruguay sits on a precipice of confronting this same dilemma. Vázquez’s initiatives are a step in the right direction, but risk coming too late if they are not pursued soon.
Kolbert ends her article noting that all these initiatives ultimately confront the reality that any measures will fall short of being able to reckon with the enormity of mass crimes against humanity. While this is certainly true, families of Uruguay’s disappeared hope that while they may be inadequate, at the very least, they are not too late.