The Rights Abuses Uruguay Doesn’t Want You to Know About

A small South American country has been making big strides in human rights. But it's still got some work to do.


Over the last year, Uruguay has garnered a remarkable amount of international attention. The country of only 3.4 million citizens took the lead in legalizing same-sex marriage, passed the continent’s most liberal abortion law, and became the first nation in the world to legalize and regulate the production, sale, and consumption of marijuana. President José "Pepe" Mujica’s famously modest lifestyle and his decision to personally provide housing for 100 Syrian refugee children have further bolstered his country’s image. When he visited the White House in May, U.S. President Barack Obama lauded Mujica’s "extraordinary credibility when it comes to issues of democracy and human rights."

All of this makes for great copy; everyone loves a human rights champion. Yet while Uruguay certainly deserves many of these accolades, it still has a few skeletons in its closet. Uruguay’s successes in the realm of human rights should not overshadow its shortcomings — which include violations of minority rights, a current push for a law that would infringe on children’s rights, and a failure to effectively address the legacy of the country’s dirty war.

Uruguay suffered under a harsh military dictatorship during the 1970s and early 1980s. During this period, the military shut down an independent press, dissolved congress, and imprisoned one in every 50 people, resulting in the highest rate of political incarceration in the world. Hundreds more were "disappeared," both in Uruguay and in neighboring countries, and over 10 percent of the Uruguayan population fled the country in fear. When Uruguay finally underwent a "pacted," or negotiated, transition back to democratic rule in 1985, the military was hesitant to relinquish any power and wanted to ensure that it would not be tried for crimes that took place under its rule. The new government therefore chose to forgo transitional justice in favor of building a stable democracy. These power struggles, along with the difficulty of combating long-ingrained ethnic prejudices, continue to plague Uruguay’s current human rights landscape despite the progressive social legislation it has passed in the last few years.

Perhaps the most serious flaw in Uruguay’s otherwise admirable record has to do with its treatment of Uruguayans with African origins. Since the almost complete eradication of the native population in the early 1800s, Uruguay has enjoyed a myth of homogeneity that forestalled accusations of racial or ethnic inequality. That is, until its 2011 census asked respondents for information on race for the first time. Since then, concrete statistics about the country’s gross inequality have emerged. Though Afro-Uruguayans make up 8 percent of the country’s population, 27.2 percent of them live below the poverty line, more than double the poverty rate of the country as a whole (12.4 percent). In addition, almost half of Afro-Uruguayans only complete primary school (45 percent of men and 42 percent of Afro-Uruguayan women), and only 5.7 percent attain a university or postgraduate degree. Afro-Uruguayans have less access to education, which leads to lower wages and higher unemployment rates among Afro-Uruguayans: 14 percent of Afro-Uruguayans are unemployed, 3 points higher than the overall unemployment rate.

Democratic Uruguay has taken some steps to address this serious inequality. Recently, the Uruguayan legislature passed a law to grant more scholarships to Afro-Uruguayan citizens, improve access to vocational training, and set up quotas in government jobs, while providing subsidies for private industries. In addition, the bill would require that schools teach Afro-Uruguayan history. The law will only come into effect in 2015, at the earliest. Those extolling Uruguay’s reputation as a defender of human rights must acknowledge that, despite these recent advances, Uruguay has a long history of ignoring the nation’s chronic discrimination toward Afro-Uruguayans.

Meanwhile, Uruguay is poised to make disastrous decisions in another field: juvenile justice. Citing a rise in crime, the country is currently debating a bill to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16. This October, there will be a national referendum on whether to approve this law, which aims to deter youth crime by allowing much harsher penalties to apply to a broader range of citizens. Yet Uruguay is a signatory to international agreements protecting the rights of children until the age of 18, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which it ratified in 1990. Opponents of the law argue that lowering the age of criminal responsibility will not solve the problem of insecurity (since only 7 percent of crimes in Uruguay are committed by minors), but that the best way to solve juvenile delinquency is through work, rehabilitation, and education. On top of this, the United Nations has also routinely denounced the poor conditions in Uruguay’s prisons — making the possible passage of this law one of the most pressing human rights concerns in the nation. In parallel with the "No a la Baja" ("No to the Lowering") campaign that opposes the law, the country’s foremost human rights film festival, Tenemos Que Ver, picked "children’s rights" as the theme for this year’s annual event. Yet this pressing human rights concern has also largely been ignored at an international level.

Lastly, and in some ways most troublingly, Uruguay is still struggling with the legacy of its authoritarian past. Similar to many other Southern Cone nations, Uruguay’s strong democratic traditions devolved in the 1960s and 1970s, resulting in a dictatorship that lasted from 1973 to 1985. As described above, during this period Uruguay was often referred to as "the torture chamber of Latin America."

Since the nation transitioned to democratic rule, Uruguay has failed to hold the perpetrators of these crimes to account, and has yet to conclusively investigate the fates of the disappeared. Both the initial government inquiry in 1985 and a Peace Commission report in 2003 failed to determine the location of the bodies of the disappeared or fully investigate the circumstances surrounding their disappearances. Throughout both of these inquiries, the military refused to open its archives to investigators, and those files remain inaccessible to this day.

Aside from a few high-profile trials, like the one that led to Juan María Bordaberry’s conviction in 2010, more widespread justice initiatives have also been stymied. Just last year, Mariana Mota, one of the most prominent judges advocating for courts to hear these cases, was transferred to a civilian court by the Supreme Court of Justice, and her criminal cases were largely dismissed. On top of this, and despite widespread protests, the Supreme Court also revalidated the statute of limitations against trying these crimes within the country, in effect renewing a law granting amnesty to members of the military, which had been overturned in October 2011.

These setbacks were particularly devastating for the activists who had spent the previous 30 years trying to learn what had become of their loved ones, and who thought President Mujica might help them in their quest for justice and truth. Having been a member of the Tupamaros, a left-wing urban guerrilla group that was active in the 1960s and 1970s, Mujica was targeted as a subversive by the military government and spent most of the dictatorship in solitary confinement. He was only released when the new democratic government took power in 1985. Many of his friends and comrades had been victims of the dictatorship, and he began his presidency by complying with an Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling to acknowledge state responsibility for the crimes of the dictatorship.

But since then, Mujica has been criticized for his role in reproducing conditions of impunity. Many were surprised to see Mujica participate in this year’s "Marcha del Silencio," a yearly march marking the death of the two most famous "disappeared" politicians, Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz and Zelmar Michelini, who were killed in Buenos Aires during Operation Condor. (The photo above shows marchers carrying portraits of their disappeared relatives.) This year’s march, held on May 20, was themed "¿Dónde están? ¿Por qué el silencio?" ("Where are they? Why the silence?") to protest the Mujica government’s silence and resistance to issues of human rights accountability. Remaining in the middle of pack, Mujica did little to garner attention. He and his wife arrived without security and trudged along in the pounding rain for the last half of the silent march, on a night that, coincidentally, happened to be Mujica’s 79th birthday. Some activists praised the president for bringing further attention to the march’s objectives and hoped that his presence indicated that he would work to resolve these issues during the last few months of his presidency.

Others, however, were deeply critical. With presidential elections this fall, many castigated the president for playing politics at an event meant to cut across political divides. They also argued that he might have used his position of power to speak out against Mota’s transfer, contest the Supreme Court amnesty decision, or launch a fact-finding mission, rather than merely participating in a purely symbolic event.

Mujica’s symbolic presence at this march, underscored by his continued inaction on accountability issues, provides a window into the complicated human rights legacy the president is leaving behind. For all the advances the country has made, it is just as important to recognize that Mujica and his successors have a lot of work to do if they truly want Uruguay to return to being the "Switzerland of South America."

Debbie Sharnak, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is currently a Fulbright scholar in Uruguay.