Memory in Montevideo

This post comes nearly two weeks after my return to the United States from Montevideo, Uruguay. As I could have predicted, my last couple weeks in Uruguay were conducted at a feverish pace as I struggled to fit last-minute interviews, museum and archive visits, events, and political marches into my last days in the field. I think my efforts paid off, and I’m happy to report that I was able to interview over forty subjects about the Ley de Caducidad (Expiry Law), each representing a wide range of political, ideological, and social perspectives on the law. Highlights of my last two weeks in Uruguay include interviews with the former president of Uruguay, Julio Maria Sanguinetti, presidential candidate Pedro Bordaberry, Senator Rafael Michelini, and other members of the Uruguayan government who were astonishingly easy to gain access to, despite my somewhat questionable status as a graduate student with no real press credentials (yet!). I was struck by the receptiveness of all my subjects, and could literally walk into Colorado Party headquarters off the street, ask for the phone numbers of the list of politicians I’d written down, and immediately receive a detailed list of work, home, and cell phone numbers. One party secretary scheduled an interview for me on the spot with the former Defense Minister, who received me in his home in Carrasco. While I’ve never enjoyed this level of access in the United States, it also created problems I hadn’t anticipated. Looking back, I regret not beginning the process sooner during my research – I may have been able to interview Tabaré Vazquez, the president of Uruguay and an important subject since he initially withheld his public support of the referendum on the Expiry Law and his party, the Frente Amplio, never attempted to repeal the law despite holding a majority of seats in Parliament. I’m sure it would be difficult to achieve the same level of access as in any other country as a student, but conducting interviews in Uruguay, “el país de las cercanías”, was an incredibly rewarding and fascinating experience.

I also spent several days at the Punta Carretas Shopping (my other topic of research), observing visitors to the mall in Punta Carretas, formerly a prison. I conducted a series of brief oral interviews with shoppers of all ages and was surprised that my original assumption that most visitors to the mall would be members of the middle and upper-middle class from the most affluent neighborhoods of the city was mistaken. In fact, a number of people I spoke to came from very far away (the neighboring province of Canelones, and I even spoke to two Paraguayan immigrants) and several of the shoppers were from working-class neighborhoods. My sample size was too small to make any sweeping generalizations about the kind of people who shop at Punta Carretas or how they feel about memorializing the prison that once existed there, but it was a very interesting journalistic and sociological exercise since I’d never done an oral survey before. Again, I regret not beginning the process sooner (if I had done this twice a week during my entire time in the country, my findings would be more conclusive). I was surprised that anyone would talk to me at all, but the fact that I was affiliated with a foreign university helped me more than I could ever have anticipated.
My last full day in Montevideo coincided with the kick-off of the campaign for the “papeleta rosada”, named for the pink color of the ballot that Uruguayans voting to repeal the Ley de Caducidad will put in their voting envelopes in the October 25th national elections. This event was the perfect conclusion to a summer spent interviewing former political prisoners and human rights activists, and I saw many familiar faces in the paraninfo of the University of the Republic of Uruguay, the same auditorium where Che Guevara came to speak to the Uruguayan public in 1961. Seated at the front of the auditorium were members of the Coordinadora para la Anulación de la Ley de Caducidad, several of whom I had interviewed, and other important cultural figures in Uruguay including writer Eduardo Galeano and popular musician Daniel Viglietti, whose emotional performance at the end of the night brought everyone in the audience (and the overflow crowd watching outside) to their feet. I realized then that for every person in the audience I had interviewed this summer, there were at least twenty people I hadn’t, and I know that my project can only really scratch the surface of over twenty years of struggle, frustration, and preserverance for every Uruguayan committed to bringing human rights violators to justice. This popular movement is at once twenty years in the making and only just beginning – the campaign to repeal the Ley de Caducidad started in earnest the day I left Uruguay, but the struggle for “memoria, justicia, y nunca más” will continue long after Uruguayan voters make their decision on October 25th.

Mari Hayman
MA Candidate, CLACS

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