“The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount, for the desired effect.” These are the words of a US instructor in the art of torture teaching techniques in Uruguay during the nation’s 1973-1985 military dictatorship. The US played a major role in supporting Uruguay’s brutal dictatorship, agents from the CIA and Office of Public Safety operated abroad to teach intelligence techniques to fight communist and socialist dissidents.
Who could forget Constantin Costa-Gavra’s 1972 film State of Siege, set in Uruguay in the early 1970′s. In an unforgettable scene, a US official from the Office of Public Safety teaches a room full of cadets the technique of the picana or “electric prod.” The feature length film narrates a guerrilla group’s kidnapping of an official of the US Agency for International Development (a group used as a front for training foreign police in counterinsurgency methods). Using his interrogation as a backdrop, the film explores the Tupamaro urban guerrillas’ fight against US plans to implement terror and military dictatorship in their country. More than 200 were disappeared during Uruguay’s dictatorship and many more detained and tortured. The CIA aided dictatorships in coordinating Operation Condor, a shared plan by regional dictators in Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina to kill opponents in the 1970s and 80s.
Once again this small nation received a symbolic visit from a US representative who advocates legalized torture in the developing world, George W. Bush. So what was George Bush doing in Uruguay?
First, Uruguay’s President Tabare Vazquez invited him. Vazquez has been heralded as a center-left president forming part of the ‘pink-tide’ bloc along with Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner, Brazil’s Silvio Lula, and Chile’s Michel Bachelet. Vazquez, Uruguay’s first left-wing president ran on the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) coalition party ticket and won by a 50 percent margin. Since taking office, Vazquez, like his pink counterparts has been eager to shut up the popular masses and get down to neoliberal business. Bush and VÃ¡zquez appeared together in a press briefing March 10 in Anchorena Park, Uruguay, to discuss education, trade exchanges, economic investments and immigration.
One of the things Bush and Vazquez talked about was the exchange of technology, medicine and education. Bush mentioned plans to fund a health clinic, but did not give any details. The US plans to open a military base medical with United States Army Special Operations Command South funds. The Santa Catalina military base has functioned for more than 15 years, providing a space for army and marine training. Now, with 350,000 dollars in South Command funds, Uruguay’s military has built a policlinic. Local residents and human rights groups say that the policlinic is the US’s first step in getting its foot in the door to establish a military base similar to Paraguay’s military bases. Under the guise of humanitarian assistance, the US plans to train Uruguayan troops and hold exercises for “stability operations.” Strategically, Uruguay could be key in US led operations to control natural resources and resistance in the region.
Uruguay is home to the world’s largest aquifer, the GuaranÃ aquifer. The GuaranÃ aquifer is the largest freshwater aquifer in South America, covering more than 1.2 million square kilometers and spanning four countries-Paraguay, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. The US has already set up military bases in Paraguay and Brazil. Uruguay’s military base in Santa Catalina is preparing for US visitors. Writers like Ben Dangl and Raul Zibechi believe U.S. operations in Paraguay are part of a preventative war to control these natural resources and suppress social uprisings in the region. In Argentina’s northern region of Misiones local residents have reported of military operations in the area.
Trade was another big issue talked about during Bush’s visit. Uruguay has been cool to the MERCOSUR, a regional trade bloc composed of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Venezuela and Uruguay. Vazquez has said that Uruguay will stay in MERCOSUR but defends the right to look for new markets outside of the regional trade blocs. During Bush’s visit, Vazquez speculated a trade agreement with the US, but was left short. Bush complimented Uruguay for its beef, software and blueberries but left without signing any trade agreement or aid agreements. Beef was certainly on the menu, Bush was eager to try Uruguay’s famous beef. As a gift, US president gave Vazquez a barbeque set.
Uruguay’s President TabarÃ© Vazquez and President Bush got married, well at least at massive protests during Bush’s visit to Uruguay. Over 25,000 people went to the streets to repudiate Bush’s presence in Latin America. The numbers of protestors is no small feat for the nation which inhabits only three million. Giant dolls representing Bush and Vazquez led the march, Bush wearing a tuxedo and Vazquez a wedding dress. Uruguay’s president was pregnant with hunger, misery and war.
“The people didn’t invite Bush,” said Hernan Gutierezz, a protestor at the march. What was most surprising was the mobilizing factor the US president’s visit had in Latin America. In Uruguay Vazquez chumming around with Bush created an uproar from the ruling coalition’s progressive support base. Many from the center-left Frente Amplio coalition joined the protests against Bush’s arrival. Uruguay’s largest housing cooperative coalition, FUCVAM, held a 200 kilometer march to Anchorena estate where Bush and his Uruguayan counterpart met. The marchers were forced to make a 40 kilometer detour, prohibited from entering Colonia, a local coastal town and only allowed within 30 kilometers from the Anchorena estate.
Since Frente Amplio won the ballot in 2004, social movements have become stagnated with the crucial question of ‘what next?’ Now, three years after Vazquez’s victory many of his supporters realize that a lot is left to be desired. Salaries fail to meet basic needs, social programs have been cut and public transport costs are still high. Many of Frente Amplio’s supporters saw Bush’s visit as the last straw. Social movements outside of the Frente Amplio have gathered momentum in the past year: trade unions, landless farmers taking over land and the country’s broad housing cooperative movement.
What is clear is from Bush’s stay in Uruguay is that the nation’s social movements haven’t forgiven the United States for supporting the brutal dictatorship that doomed the country to a decade of terror, fear and looting. Irma Leites, a former political prisoner during Uruguay’s dictatorship sent a special message to Bush and Vazquez outside the Anchorena estate. “The blood of our comrades wasn’t shed to give up our natural resources and invite the U.S. to loot our country. Out with the Yankees who want the freedom to torture.” The masses on the streets of Montevideo sent a clear message to the U.S.–no more torture, no more military bases, no to the exploitation of natural resources in the region. This message dogged Bush throughout his 5-nation tour.
Marie Trigona is an independent journalist, radio producer and translator based in Argentina. She can be reached at [email protected]