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What Has Uruguay Done with Its Memories?

May 15, 2018 by

They don’t talk much here about the dictatorship. But then, there are a lot of things Uruguayans don’t talk about. Fútbol and the heat are generally pretty safe talking points; it doesn’t matter if it’s 21 degrees Celsius – cheerfully complain about the heat anyway and you’ve just made perfectly Uruguayan conversation. Oh, and don’t frighten anybody with religion – please.

Obviously, I’m new here. As in, less-than-a-year-in-the-country new. Nine months ago, I was hardly aware there had even been a dictatorship in Uruguay. All this history is new to me, which I guess is why I’m asking. Then too, I grew up safe, white, privileged, and American. Surviving oppression is not my area of expertise.

But you wonder sometimes what all isn’t being said. Democracy was re-established just thirty-four years ago. That’s not textbook distance from today; many of the same men who directed the civic-military regime, who acted on its behalf and those who resisted it still walk the streets of this city.

I don’t get the impression that those years are a taboo subject, per se, but maybe, for Uruguay, not speaking about it speaks. Maybe letting it go illustrates the overcoming of it. And they have – no question. Uruguay of 2018 is a calm and progressive corner of Latin America – western, even, in many respects, and proud to be adelantándose.

Here in this vehemently atheist nation was a sea of Uruguayans singing out a passionate plea to God.

Yet, the facts still stand, and here in Montevideo those facts leave me wondering. As simultaneous dictatorships in the ’70s and ’80s squeezed the necks of most countries across the Americas, Uruguay endured its own. In a country of less than three million people, 380,000 fled, five hundred were murdered or disappeared, and seven thousand imprisoned. Those numbers don’t compare with the atrocities which mark Argentina, Chile, or Guatemala, yet per capita, Uruguay had the highest rate of political prisoners in the world. These dissidents suffered torture, a terror tactic to warn those still “free.” Abductions, abuse, and suspicion generated a culture of fear in which one out of every seven Uruguayans denounced another. These people were isolated, censored, and silenced.

So what’s happened since? I don’t really know. The country rebuilt its democracy with focused determination, reestablishing its name in the world. But what has Uruguay done with its memories? What about a reckoning? Twice now, first in 1989 and again in 2009, justice was offered by plebiscite: should the hundreds of crimes committed by the regime be opened to judicial investigation? Should Uruguay move ahead with criminal charges? Twice the vote came back: no. It was close, but it was no.

Most Uruguayans prefer to just move on. I really don’t get that, but I have little means to – I’ve never lived through such things.

Then notices on social media last week caught my eye: Voy Por La Paz, an annual international peace conference, coming to Montevideo. Panel discussions featuring Nobel winners, famous political dissidents, and human rights activists – plus an eclectic array of Latin American artists assembling for a peace concert. Emblematic names such as Lech Walesa, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, Rigoberta Menchú, Leon Gieco, and Tabaré Cardozo settled it for me: I’d be there.

Solo le pido a Dios with electric guitar

There was one combination on stage that night which I won’t easily forget, and will likely never see again: The king of modern murga, Uruguayan music icon Tabaré Cardozo, side by side with Argentina’s internationally beloved folk rock artist, León Gieco. Although a generation apart in years, the two don’t stand as far apart in history: thirty-some years ago, Gieco fled Argentina when his songs garnered him threats and censorship from the dictatorial government. At the same time, Cardozo’s father, a Methodist pastor, was in prison and under torture by the Uruguayan regime for his dissident voice.

Nine months ago, I hadn’t even heard of murga, Cardozo’s popular music style, and I won’t try to explain it now. I’ll just say that (a) it makes sense in the context of Uruguay, (b) it really grows on you, and (c) Cardozo represents something totally Uruguayan which has won him the love of the country.

Gieco has been on my playlists for years already; I can’t even remember when I first found his music. Some of his internationally recognized hits such as “Sobreviviendo,” “En el País de la Libertad,” and of course “Solo le Pido a Dios” have shaped much of the thinking, the morale, and the resistance of Central and South Americans both during those violent years and in the aftermath. He’s been singing to them and for them for more than forty years now. They love him.

As the final number at the close of the concert, he and Cardozo led the entire concert hall in “Solo le Pido a Dios,” Gieco’s own, most famous song. Written in 1978, this song is charged with all the memory and meaning of those oppressive years. Though banned immediately by the Argentinian dictatorship, the newborn song spread instantly across the nation, giving words and giving conviction to millions of silenced people. Today it stands as a cry against any indifference, in the face of all injustice. It’s been performed in ten different languages, and has resounded in stadiums and concert halls on every continent.

This crowd sang it with one voice.

For me, it was a moment as surreal as it was electrifying. Right there on stage were people I never dreamed I’d ever see in person. Moreover, here in this vehemently atheist nation was a sea of Uruguayans singing out a passionate plea to God that he would never let them grow indifferent to suffering, to war, to betrayal, or to the future.

It’s there. In spite of the daily silence, in spite of the truth we may never know, in spite of the justice deferred, the years of the dictatorship are not forgotten here, nor neglected, nor denied. It all lives on in Uruguayan memory. I saw it just last week.

Watch León Gieco perform “Solo le Pido a Dios” for a similar crowd in 2016


Solo le Pido a Dios

Solo le pido a Dios
Que el dolor no me sea indiferente
Que la reseca muerte no me encuentre
Vacía y sola sin haber hecho lo suficiente

Solo le pido a Dios
Que lo injusto no me sea indiferente
Que no me abofeteen la otra mejilla
Después que una garra me arañe esta suerte

Solo le pido a Dios
Que la guerra no me sea indiferente
Es un monstruo grande y pisa fuerte
Toda la pobre inocencia de la gente

Solo le pido a Dios
Que el engaño no me sea indiferente
Si un traidor puede más que unos cuantos
Que esos cuantos no lo olviden fácilmente

Solo le pido a Dios
Que el futuro no me sea indiferente
Desahuciado está el que tiene que marchar
A vivir una cultura diferente

Songwriter: León Gieco

I Only Ask of God

I only ask of God
That I may not be indifferent to pain
That the dry death doesn’t find me
Empty and alone, without having done enough.

I only ask of God
That I may not be indifferent to injustice
That they do not slap my other cheek
After a claw has ripped apart my future.

I only ask of God
That I may not be indifferent to war
It’s a big monster which treads hard
on the poor innocence of the people.

I only ask of God
That I may not be indifferent to deception
If one traitor is more powerful than many
May those many not forget him easily.

I only ask of God
That I may not be indifferent to the future
Evicted is he who is forced to go away
And must live within a different culture.


About the author


Shannon McPherson

Shannon is a literature student at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia.

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