Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Uruguay sends a message

The torturers don't always prevail forever.

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.

A former Uruguayan dictator was arrested on Monday and charged with secretly transferring political prisoners who later disappeared and are presumed dead, a prosecutor said.

Gregorio Alvarez, a former army general, led Uruguay from 1981 until 1985, when the country returned to democracy after 12 years of military rule. ...


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.

...the military authorities assigned each and every Uruguayan citizen one of three classifications, the designation being stamped into his or her files at the central archive. "A" citizens were politically trustworthy and hence could be employed by the state (the country's principle employer), could travel freely, and were extended certain minimal freedoms. "B" citizens were deemed ideologically suspect and hence could be employed privately but not by the state (tens of thousands were sacked); their travel privileges were severely limited and they faced continuous petty (and sometimes not so petty) harassment by the security services. "C" citizens weren't citizens: they were pariahs pure and simple; they'd been utterly stripped of their rights and even the possibility of employment... . And the point was that anyone at any time could find himself reclassified as "C" -- because after all, they [the rulers] knew everything.

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.

"All of us were hooded all the time," he recalled. "And all of us were tortured for days on end, without even being interrogated at first. There must have been a hundred fifty, two hundred people there; you could hear breathing, coughing, moaning -- we weren't allowed to talk to each other ...

Eventually they'd take us in for their interrogations -- beatings, shocks, submarino [waterboarding] immersions. They weren't really after any information. They knew everything already, had everybody's name. It was just a part of the process. Once I became aware that a seven-year-old boy had been brought in and was being forced to witness his parents being tortured. "

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:

The regime at Libertad ... was more subtle. Major A. Maciel, who was a director of Libertad, observed at one point, regarding the prisoners under his charge, "We didn't get rid of them when we had the chance, and one day we'll have to let them go, so we'll have to take advantage of the time we have left to drive them mad."

...[An] International Red Cross delegation noted in its report, "The implementation of every sanction is connected with a violation of the rules. The problem, however, is that such rules undergo daily changes, so that sanctions are never predictable. Every privilege many suddenly become a crime and therefore give rise to a sanction."

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.


sfmike said...

Yhanks. I hope to be alive to see our current torturers put away.

Rebecca Gordon said...

The Uruguayan military consulted with behaviorist psychologists in the U.S. to design this maddening prison. Today U.S. psychologists continue to advise interrogators at Guantanamo. This is a long and shameful history of collaboration.

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