Uncovering the Truth, Three Decades On

Juan María Bordaberry attained a certain notoriety outside of Uruguay's borders when he transformed himself from democratically elected president to dictator in June 1973, dissolving Congress, outlawing political parties and civil society organisations, and suspending civil liberties in a coup d'etat in which he joined forces with the military.

The coup ushered in a dictatorship that lasted until 1985, during which thousands of people were jailed and tortured.

Two decades later, the courts in this small South American country sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil are finally beginning to try some of those responsible for the dictatorship and the repression, and information allegedly pointing to their innocence has begun to emerge both within and outside of the courts, drawing heavy media coverage.

An extreme right-wing Roman Catholic with a philosophy that denies democracy and advocates a kind of divine right to rule by a Catholic elite, Bordaberry is facing charges in court of violating the constitution and of acting as coconspirator in the May 20, 1976 assassinations of two leaders of the political opposition to his regime, Zelmar Michelini and Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz, in Buenos Aires.

The murders of the two prominent politicians were not the only crimes committed by the security forces on both sides of the Río de la Plata, the estuary separating Uruguay and Argentina, while Bordaberry was president -- a position he held until Jun. 12, 1976, when the military removed him because they did not agree with his proposal to permanently ban political parties.

There were other deaths as well, within and outside of Uruguay, both before and after June 1973. Some 200 Uruguayans fell victim to forced disappearance, mainly in Argentina, and thousands of political prisoners were tortured and held in prison for years.

In fact Uruguay had the largest number of political prisoners and torture victims in proportion to its population, in a region that was basically ruled at the time by de facto military regimes.

On Thursday night, one of the former dictator's sons, lawyer Pedro Bordaberry, who served as tourism minister in the conservative Colorado Party administration of Jorge Batlle (2000-2005), was interviewed on a local investigative journalism programme, and said he would present "proof" that his father was innocent of the murders of exiled legislators Michelini and Gutiérrez Ruiz.

On the programme, "Zona Urbana", viewers heard the son argue that his father should not be tried for violating the constitution, because the responsibility for the process that led to the consolidation of a dictatorial regime was difficult to determine and was broadly shared by a number of political and military actors.

Furthermore, he argued, by agreeing to remain in his post when the armed forces staged the coup, his father saved the country from even worse woes, like a dictatorship along the lines of that of leftist General Juan Velasco Alvarado (1968-1975), who carried out broad land reform and nationalisations.

But while Bordaberry insisted that he personally had a strong faith in democracy, he refused to repudiate his dictator father, although he did say he "did not agree" with the coup.

He then offered what he said amounted to proof of his father's innocence in the deaths of the two opposition leaders: two conversations he secretly taped, with Senator Rafael Michelini of the ruling leftist Broad Front (the son of Zelmar Michelini), and presidential chief of staff Gonzalo Fernández.

In one of the taped private conversations broadcast on the show, Michelini expressed his conviction that Bordaberry had not personally given the order to kill his father.

In the other, Fernández said he believed the two murders were committed by a member of a paramilitary group in Argentina with the aim of obtaining gold that leftist guerrillas in Uruguay had allegedly given to the two politicians for safe-keeping.

During the programme, Pedro Bordaberry challenged Rafael Michelini to deny what he could be heard saying in the secretly recorded conversation.

The two men engaged in a lengthy, bitter argument, with shouts and insults, to the point that their interviewer ordered that their microphones be turned off at one point. The show earned ratings of 14.5 in Montevideo (nearly 200,000 viewers in a city of 1..45 million), and the heated face-to-face meeting between the sons of Bordaberry and Michelini was virtually the sole focus of radio talk shows and newscasts on Thursday.

But in the confusion, perhaps few noticed that the secret tape recordings did not "prove" a thing, except for the personal opinions of Michelini and Fernández -- and the habit of many politicians of saying in private what they would not say in public.

Besides, Bordaberry is not personally accused of shooting the two Uruguayan politicians, or even of ordering their murders, but of complicity and/or cover-up, because he was president at the time.

Extracts of the taped conversations broadcast on the show concurred with an article published in late September by the prestigious weekly publication Búsqueda.

That report set forth the thesis that Michelini and Gutiérrez Ruiz, two of the highest profile political opponents of the dictatorship, against which they were campaigning at an international level, were killed for purely economic ends by Argentine agents, and that Uruguayan authorities had nothing to do with the murders.

It has long been known that the notorious Argentine criminal ring of Aníbal Gordon plundered the victims of that country's 1976-1983 dictatorship. But that was the modus operandi of the regime, and no one would argue that the reason that anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 leftists and other dissidents were forcibly disappeared was for the dictatorship to get its hands on the victims' wealth and belongings.

The families of Michelini and Gutiérrez Ruiz, who are plaintiffs in the case against Bordaberry, have criticised that version because it puts the stress on only one aspect of the repression and ignores others, resulting in confusion that ends up playing into the hands of the accused.

The truth underlying the incidents under investigation is a complex puzzle that requires a more in-depth effort to put together the pieces, not only in the courts, but also in the sphere of public opinion.

It is also true that the criminal ring led by Gordon acted in complicity with the Argentine secret services and security forces, and with a group of Uruguayan agents who served as go-betweens.

According to the prosecutors, the available evidence shows that Bordaberry and other civilian officials at the time, like then foreign minister Juan Carlos Blanco, were responsible for the two murders, and that members of the Uruguayan military were among the actual perpetrators.

The evidence includes declassified documents that shed light on the cooperation between the Uruguayan and Argentine regimes in tracking down, threatening, and harassing Michelini and Gutiérrez Ruiz and their families, as well as testimony from former political prisoners.

It also includes testimony that indicates that before they were killed, the two politicians were seeking negotiations for a democratic solution to the dictatorship.

After Uruguay returned to democracy, a media operation put an end to the congressional investigation carried out from 1985 to 1987 to clarify the murders. The Montevideo newspaper El País published secret documents from that investigation, which had been leaked with the (ultimately successful) aim of aborting the inquiry.

The Uruguayan dictatorship did nothing to investigate the killings, neither under Bordaberry, nor after he was overthrown by the military.

Furthermore, the families of the two murdered men suffered concerted harassment at the hands of the regime during the funerals.

The funeral of Gutiérrez Ruiz "took place surrounded by members of the security forces on horseback, who even leaped over the graves," wrote journalist Florencia Melgar in her book "Sabotaje a la verdad" (Sabotage of the Truth), published this year.

As president, Bordaberry made it clear, in writing, that he supported these actions.

"(T)he information I have received regarding the measures adopted with respect to the burial of Zelmar Michelini and Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz describes the stance taken by a police official who kept the national flag from being placed on the coffin of the latter.

"In my view, that stance was worthy of praise for the official and for the police force as a whole," Bordaberry wrote in a letter dated May 26, 1976 to then interior minister Hugo Linares Brum.

"(B)ut it especially demonstrated, in my opinion, sensitivity towards what signified paying honours to the remains of a citizen wanted for activity against the Fatherland," continued the letter, which was cited by journalist Roger Rodríguez in a report published in August in the Uruguayan daily La República.

Today, neither Bordaberry nor his son need to prove that he was innocent, because the presumption of innocence is once again respected by the Uruguayan legal system since the dictatorship came to an end.

[Source: By Diana Carioni, Montevideo, IPS, 06Oct06]

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