SermonsSalvador Allende

Two days in Uruguay

L. Sandra, M. Gabi, Sandra’s niece visiting from Spain, R. Michael

Michael met Sandra at his kibbutz, Kerem Shalom, in the 1980s. A dedicated socialist and an exile from the Uruguayan dictatorship she wanted to experience the socialism as practiced by the kibbutz movement in Israel. She later returned to Uruguay for various reasons and abhors the current state of Israeli politics.

Our first day after landing, Sandra took us out to a restaurant built over a tunnel that Tupamaro guerrillas had dug to free political prisoners held in the Punto Carretas Prison.

Note that I still have my hair-do from the wedding. Summer was heading into fall in Uruguay, and the weather was warm and humid. However, Uruguayos do not seem to consume the amount of liquids that the weather required. I had not drunk half that glass of passion fruit lemonade. That’s the amount the waitress served us.

We then walked to the prison which has become…a shopping mall, complete with McDonalds and Starbucks. Yes, it is disgusting. Sandra, who worked at a municipal office nearby, said that for a long time she avoided walking over to Punto Carretas to make photocopies. Dissidents trying to reclaim the long history of democracy in Uruguay had spent years of their lives here, suffering torture and humiliation, all so young Urugayos1 could enjoy their Big Macs and Mochaccinos there one day.

What remains to indicate that Punto Carretas was once a prison are the tiny windows common to most prisons, and a couple explanatory placards. I’ve added a picture of a cell at a federal prison in Oregon for comparison. The memorial for the prisoners and their families did not go up until 2018. On the back, the text says that the these placards are dedicated to the families of the prisoners because of what they endured over the years when their loved ones were in prison, and lists the ex-prisoners responsible for erecting this modest memorial.

Afterwards, Sandra took us up to the top of City Hall, 20 stories tall, where visitors may see a panorama of Montevideo. Of course, I was also interested in the plants. The attraction featured a little café, where we bought drinks, and Sandra bought us each a bonbon.

Across Latin America, Salvador Allende is regarded as a martyr of the Cold War. The people of Chile elected him in a free and fair election, but because he was a socialist, Henry Kissinger famously said, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.” The U.S. thus supported a military coup against Allende. Tens of thousands of Chileans were imprisoned, tortured and disappeared2 over the next 17 years and the economy, which had improved the lives of ordinary Chileans under Allende, immediately tanked, with inflation spiraling to 376 percent.

Isabel Allende asked Sandra to be the representative of the Allende family in Uruguay. The Salvador Allende Society in Montevideo, of which she is a member, installed this small plaza in his honor. (Dusk had set in, so I apologize for the dimness of the photos.) The quotation on the plaque comes from Allende’s final radio address, which he broadcast as the Chilean airforce was bombing the presidential palace on September 11, 1973.

Apparently, Allende was a Freemason. Michael had attended a Freemason convention in Rochester as a translator for a Nicaraguan relative who was also a Freemason and heard them expressing reactionary conservative political views, but evidently Freemasons can also be socialists. George Washington, Simón Bolivar, Thurgood Marshall, Richard Pryor, John Glenn, and Salvador Allende. Who knew?

The next day, before we went to the Museum of Memory, Sandra told us of her (underground) work to bring the children of Uruguayan exiles from Europe in 1983 to visit their parents in prison, or simply to know their family still in Chile. The mass group of 154 children—aged 3 and 17 years old—traveled alone to Montevideo. They arrived to cheering crowds chanting, “Tus padres volverán!” (Your parents will return), which became the title of a 2015 documentary film about the event. The filmmakers interviewed six adults about the impact the trip had had on them. In several cases, it was not positive. One boy considered his Dutch stepfather his real father, because he had been just a toddler when he left, and his Chilean father’s desperate overtures to assert his fatherhood were painful to him as an adult. For another boy, prison had turned his father into an angry, abusive person, and he wanted nothing to do with him or Uruguay. He eventually moved back to Denmark and raised his family there.

Watching the film with Sandra added a lot to the experience, because she supplemented the narrative with background.. She also kept pointing out a little boy she was in charge of while he was in the country. The visit of the children was a factor in the fall of the dictatorship in 1985, Sandra said, because the junta and the rest of the country saw how much popular support there was for prisoners and those in exile. When the children returned to Europe, she went with them, because she guessed the junta knew about her involvement in the event and she would be safer there.

We spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon at the Museum of Memory, which the founders laid out as a park, complete with playground. The banners in the front are protesting lack of municipal support for museum workers.

When you enter, the first room tells you about the first days of coup in 1973, the people killed, and the protests against it. A pro-junta newspaper, Macha, put out and edition with the headline, “IT IS NOT A DICTATORSHIP.” Pro tip: if you have to tell people it’s not a dictatorship, it’s a dictatorship. Also note the Social Credo put out by the Uruguayan Methodist church, which denounced political repression, among other things. They were extremely brave to do so.

If you enlarge the photo with the QR code and scan it, you will find the story of Susana Pintos, one of the students killed by state repression between 1968 and 1985.

As is the case with all authoritarian governments—Communist, Fascist or Monarchical—artists who dissent from the official narrative at best find their work banned and at worst end up dead. If you want to see some of the musicians whom the Uruguayan ruling junta banned, scan the QR code. On the Jose Carbajal album, he recorded songs by musicians whom the government had disappeared.

On April 21, 1974 Uruguayan Armed Forces and police shot several rounds of ammunition into the house where Diana Maidanik (21), Silvia Reyes (21 and 6 months pregnant), and Laura Raggio (19) were sleeping, killing all three. The counterinsurgent military–police Joint Forces said they were looking for Reyes’s husband and falsely claimed that the women had died in a confrontation. Uruguayans refer to the incident as the “muchachas de abril,” or “girls of April.”

Other rooms of the museum displayed various items from prison. The small handwritten item propped on the rusty tin is A History of the Vietnamese Communist Party, written out on cigarette rolling papers. The letter is addressed to a woman named Amanda who was in charge of the children who visited their parents in prison, which was often a frightening experience for them (Amanda did not seem to make it better.)

Prisoners often spent time making little gifts for their families at home, with whatever materials they had available. However, the pink and blue handkerchief was sent from Switzerland to a prisoner, and the prison authorities refused it. Years later, it found its way to her, however due to the diligence of a Swiss postmaster.

An estimated 500,000 Uruguayans fled the country during the 17 years of dictatorship. In their exile, they helped to build international solidarity for imprisoned Uruguayans and those who had disappeared. Swedish activists, in particular, noticed that the plight of those living under the Argentinean and Chilean dictatorships received more attention, and decided to take up the cause of Uruguayans.

Here’s a display on the children who went into exile and the visit that Sandra helped organize for children in Europe to visit Chile.

Most of those killed in Uruguay by the government or its proxies were never found, and Uruguayans today still hold protests, demanding information on what happened to them. (The military government granted itself amnesty before turning over the government to democratic elections in 1985. Some of the highest profile military officers eventually faced trial, but the people below them who carried out their orders died not.) These processions happen in complete silence, with participants holding photographs of the missing people as they walk. The poster below records the 2022 “March of Silence.”

When we were visiting, the museum’s Board of Directors was meeting. Sandra said they were all involved with the struggle some way. Perhaps some fought with the Tupamaro guerrillas (who eventually became a political party), or spent time in prison, or became exiles, or were family members of disappeared people. In any case, they were delighted we were visiting and plied us with delicious cheesy snacks.

The pots and pans represent a traditional form of protest in which everyone comes out of their homes for a few minutes and beats on pans as loud as they can to show their displeasure with the government.

According to Wikipedia,

Michael and I would go on to see Museums of Memory in Argentina and Chile. They looked more professional, developed by designers and architects, but at the museum in Montevideo, you could feel the beating hearts of the people behind it. In 1973, the entire population of Uruguay was about 3 million, and half lived in Montevideo. That’s a bit less than the population of Chicago. And I can kind of see the people of Chicago putting together a museum like this, when they knew their resources would be limited.

After the museum, we went to the market to eat at a seafood restaurant, where I had eel for the first time. (Meh.) On the way, we passed this building, and I realized we had arrived during Carnival.

On the way back to Sandra’s, I took pictures of graffiti, because that’s a thing now for me. The signs read, “What is your escape action? and “Philosophy is so dangerous.”

Almost forgot, the national dish of Uruguay is the chivito, a sandwich with ham, bacon, cheese, beef, hardboiled egg, and tomato with variations. “Heart attack in a bun” translates into Spanish as “Ataque al corazón en un bollo.”

When we arrived several days later in Mendoza, Argentina, our friend there told us “Uruguayans are just so”—she then hugged herself and rocked back and forth. We agreed. They’re very nice, and Montevideo is a very pleasant place to visit.

  1. In Uruguay and Argentina, the consonant “y” sound is pronounced “sh”, so, “Uruguashos.”

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  2. In Spanish, when they speak of the authorities “disappearing” someone, it means that they have kidnapped, probably tortured and almost always killed that person. ↩︎