issue 175 - September 1987
The noise of a caceroleo swept once more over the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo at the end of last year. In houses, on balconies and street corners, people stood and banged together saucepans and anything else they could lay their hands on - even an empty oil-drum that could be rolled over the cobblestones. The caceroleo had been a ritual protest during the savage military dictatorship which lasted between 1973 and 1984. But now it was being directed against a democratically elected Government.
The 1984 elections, which had brought President Julio Sanguinetti to power, had left many unanswered questions, of which the most obvious was that of human rights. What was to happen to the assassins and torturers who had flourished during the dictatorship and still walked the streets of Montevideo? The Generals in Argentina had attempted to bargain for their immunity and they had failed; Generals and ex-Presidents found themselves in the dock. In Uruguay, however, a Law of Impunity was passed which gave the armed forces immunity from prosecution. And this was what prompted the caceroleo.
This tiny country, slotted between Brazil and Argentina as a 'buffer' state at the insistence of the British in the 19th century, has experienced the most catastrophic episode in its history. In the space of little more than a decade between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s, it was transformed from the 'Switzerland of Latin America' with the highest and most evenly distributed standard of living on the continent, into the 'Torture Chamber of Latin America' with the largest proportion of political prisoners of any country.
I recently revisited Uruguay after 14 years. The initial appearance is of a country past Its prime, perhaps, but flourishing nonetheless. Electricity supplies have been improved, roads have been resurfaced and there are a few more traffic lights.
But along the main shopping street women with babies sit begging. The older children, expressionless and aggressive, demand money from shoppers. I had never seen begging in Uruguay before, nor the lines of street vendors selling shoddy goods smuggled in from Brazil. There are streets carpeted with the remnants of households: a single shoe, rusty nails, worn plastic containers. Family groups stand behind them waiting. Between 1970 and 1979 the poorer half of the Uruguayan people saw its share of national income fall from 25 to 19 per cent.
For the richest five per cent of the population, however, the experience was very different: their share of national income rose from 17 to 31 per cent in the same period. A thin band of ostentatious wealth runs along the Uruguayan coast. Gangsters, dictators and ex-dictators (Stroessner from Paraguay, the Shah of Iran) bought their mansions and thundered up and down the coast in million-dollar motorboats.
Uruguay's spectacular economic decline began well before the military coup in 1973 - with the spiralling oil prices and the European food mountains playing their part. And it was to control the social consequences of this decline that the military were encouraged to intervene, supported by elements within the ruling class and by the US. But the damage done to Uruguay by the international economy was compounded to an almost insane degree by the military themselves following the monetarist policies of Milton Friedman.
By the early 1980, the military had reached a position of almost universal odium and were rapidly going bankrupt. Civil unrest was increasing sharply and beyond their control; there were mass demonstrations and ritual protests such as the caceroleo and apagón (when protestors stayed indoors and turned out the lights). A successful general strike eventually convinced the military to pack up their bags before it was too late.
A Commission on Disappearances sat for more than a year after the election, documenting 165 cases which implicated some 70 military personnel. It recommended the strongest possible action. But the armed forces refused to let the defendants appear in court. So with dark hints of a renewed military coup the Law of Impunity was passed. The new political situation is a form of 'dual power' between the military and the elected Government.
Returning after so many years away, I sensed the way in which time stands still during a period of repression, leaving a desire to return to things as they were before, a romantic yearning for some mythical golden age.
Intellectual and cultural life is gradually recovering. Exiles are slowly returning. Banned books are once again on sale, though at prices few can afford. In a way the astronomic cost of books represents the duality of Uruguay well enough: the books are there, but beyond the reach of most Uruguayans. A long. hard struggle to fill the vacuum left by the repression lies ahead, but most Uruguayans believe that it is worth it.
David Ransom worked for a bank in Uruguay and is now employed by No Fixed Abode - an agency for the homeless.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7