Montevideo, Uruguay: A living woman's hand emerges from the ground during events to celebrate the opening of the Memory Museum, symbolising the people disappeared during the 1973-1985 military dictatorship. Photograph: Marcelo Hernandez/AP
This item from Monday's news isn't likely to make much of a ripple in North America, but it should.
Why should we care about Alvarez being locked up? Alvarez's arrest is the equivalent of what many of us devoutly hope will happen someday, even if it takes 20 years: some court will haul George W. Bush and Don Rumsfeld in to stand trial for turning the United States into a torture state. (We'll assume that by then the Dick will have gone on to his Maker.)
The story of how Uruguay lost its democracy and suffered 12 years under dictatorship is little remembered here, though U.S. covert national security operatives certainly had a role in this horror story. According to Human Rights Watch, Uruguay under its generals was "a society which, in the late 1970s, had the highest ratio of political prisoners to population in the world, where torture was practiced at a highly sophisticated level, for months or years on certain prisoners." Even when the generals returned the country to civilian rule, for many years most people were eager to put an ugly part of the past behind them. But what was done in Uruguay under the dictatorship, and the fact that even three decades later some perpetrators are finally being brought to court, should matter to anyone horrified by the current ascendancy of the torture regime in the United States.
Lawrence Weschler chronicled the Uruguayan story in A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers. The book's narrative ends in 1989 with Uruguayans voting down an attempt to overturn amnesty for torturers including Alvarez. It is extraordinarily detailed, thoughtful and terrifying.
Under the guise of fighting Communism, the Uruguayan military overthrew their politicians in 1973 and imposed a system of classifying all citizens.
Couldn't happen here, could it? That's a long topic, but I'll just note that our "Homeland Security" spooks are working with academics to develop software to conduct "sentiment analysis" on written material. They say this project is meant to understand the foreign press, but since we know they grab up all the electronic communications they can capture, one wonders. Apparently they also assign all travelers a "risk assessment" score. Hmmm....
Weschler interviewed one of the generals' thousands of victims, Dr. Liber Mandressi.
Those who survived this treatment -- and it was so carefully calibrated that most did survive -- ended up in Libertad [yeah, they called it that] Prison. There, psychologists helped the military continue mental destruction of their captives. Weschler writes:
When civilian rule was restored in 1985, Libertad was closed down. The price the generals extracted from civil society for returning to their bases was an amnesty from any legal sanction for anything done under their rule. Over tremendous odds, former prisoners and their families forced a nationwide up or down vote on maintaining this amnesty in 1989 -- and lost the vote because the majority still feared above all that "the Fascism" might return or simply wanted to look forward, not back. That is, those who sought to expose and punish the torturers were rejected by their own people after it was all "over."
The torturers must have thought they were off the hook forever. That is what is inspiring about the news of the arrest and charges against Gregorio Alvarez, now an old man.
The tortured and their supporters never gave up. They continued to demand that crimes against them and against humanity be exposed. We need to learn their lesson well: never give up.