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  • The Legacy of Human Rights Violations and the Collective Identity of Redemocratized Uruguay
  • Luis Roniger (bio) and Mario Sznajder (bio)

I. Introduction

The legacy of human rights violations from the authoritarian period in Uruguay and the partial treatment of these violations under the democratic government have impacted profoundly the format of contemporary Uruguayan society. In order to trace this impact, it is necessary to analyze the legacy of human rights violations within the framework of the formation and reshaping of Uruguay’s collective identities in general and its traditions of civility in particular.

Uruguayan collective identities have been structured, even more than elsewhere in Latin America, through the state. Due to British international priorities and against the background of rivalries between Brazil and the Rio de la Plata, an independent state was established in the Banda Oriental del Uruguay by 1828. Since this time, the Uruguayan state itself has been creating the nation through a process of constructing a truly “imagined [End Page 55] community,” to use Benedict Anderson’s phrasing. 1 That is, Uruguayan collective identities were structured as part of the process of consolidation of the state, without any resemblance to processes of ethnicities crystallizing into nationalities described by Anthony Smith. 2

Viewed in terms of its ethnic composition or socioeconomic physiognomy, Uruguay resembled closely the format of neighboring Rio de la Plata or Rio Grande do Sul regions. Subsequently, in a progressive manner, collective identities were shaped in Uruguay along the lines of a civic code (civility) rather than by primordiality, and around the principles of political order and the republican virtues of citizenship. 3 This concept of national identity has been widely shared by Uruguayans, as illustrated by National Party leader Wilson Ferreira Aldunate when he spoke as an exile before the Chamber of Deputies of Ecuador in 1983:

This is why we are a most authentic country. . . . [N]ot due to the influence of a common race, in a genetic sense; neither as a result of geography, but rather by being a spiritual community. It consists in the cult of certain things: equality before the law, the representative character of the organs of government, the periodic election of the rulers, the subordination of any authority and power center to the civilian government, the strict obedience to the guarantees of freedom, of political freedom and individual freedom. . . . Among us, when there is an attack against the survival of these spiritual values the very existence of the country is put under risk, since the country is that and if [these elements are] absent, it is not a country. 4

II. The Model and its Breakdown

The small size of the country and the constraints of its geographic situation—namely, its “buffer state” position—determined Uruguay’s orientation in the mainly Western international arena. However, these geopolitical factors also granted elites a measure of reflexivity that prompted them to search for a definition of their country’s singularity vis-à-vis the colossus of nations to the south and the north. This singularity had to be defined in terms of self-constituted institutions and their achievements. [End Page 56]

The propensity among Uruguayan elites for reflective analysis of the country’s geopolitical context and its basic weakness vis-à-vis neighboring Brazil and Argentina gave Uruguay’s development a singular trajectory. The resulting characteristics, through which the country has been identified in the minds of both its citizens and its scholars, included:

  1. 1. a pragmatic pattern of governance, which incorporated both the rural elites (caudillos) and the urban elites (doctores) within the framework of the ruling political parties (established after the internal wars in the nineteenth century);

  2. 2. institutional forms for reaching consensus among elites;

  3. 3. a political mechanism of consensual conflict resolution, which lessened the tendencies of polarization and blurred ideological differences between the major political parties;

  4. 4. a system of political rule shared by both majority and minority political forces that upheld civilian rule and instilled the values of citizenship, republicanism, and consensus in the population (created by José Batlle y Ordóñez in the early twentieth century); and

  5. 5. an agro-export economic model, coupled with an open financial market, which sustained Uruguay’s institutional format and...

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