Democracy Lab

The Rights Abuses Uruguay Doesn't Want You to Know About

A small South American country has been making big strides in human rights. But it's still got some work to do.

Over the last year, Uruguay has garnered a remarkable amount of international attention. The country of only 3.4 million citizens took the lead in legalizing same-sex marriage, passed the continent's most liberal abortion law, and became the first nation in the world to legalize and regulate the production, sale, and consumption of marijuana. President José "Pepe" Mujica's famously modest lifestyle and his decision to personally provide housing for 100 Syrian refugee children have further bolstered his country's image. When he visited the White House in May, U.S. President Barack Obama lauded Mujica's "extraordinary credibility when it comes to issues of democracy and human rights."

All of this makes for great copy; everyone loves a human rights champion. Yet while Uruguay certainly deserves many of these accolades, it still has a few skeletons in its closet. Uruguay's successes in the realm of human rights should not overshadow its shortcomings -- which include violations of minority rights, a current push for a law that would infringe on children's rights, and a failure to effectively address the legacy of the country's dirty war.

Uruguay suffered under a harsh military dictatorship during the 1970s and early 1980s. During this period, the military shut down an independent press, dissolved congress, and imprisoned one in every 50 people, resulting in the highest rate of political incarceration in the world. Hundreds more were "disappeared," both in Uruguay and in neighboring countries, and over 10 percent of the Uruguayan population fled the country in fear. When Uruguay finally underwent a "pacted," or negotiated, transition back to democratic rule in 1985, the military was hesitant to relinquish any power and wanted to ensure that it would not be tried for crimes that took place under its rule. The new government therefore chose to forgo transitional justice in favor of building a stable democracy. These power struggles, along with the difficulty of combating long-ingrained ethnic prejudices, continue to plague Uruguay's current human rights landscape despite the progressive social legislation it has passed in the last few years.

Perhaps the most serious flaw in Uruguay's otherwise admirable record has to do with its treatment of Uruguayans with African origins. Since the almost complete eradication of the native population in the early 1800s, Uruguay has enjoyed a myth of homogeneity that forestalled accusations of racial or ethnic inequality. That is, until its 2011 census asked respondents for information on race for the first time. Since then, concrete statistics about the country's gross inequality have emerged. Though Afro-Uruguayans make up 8 percent of the country's population, 27.2 percent of them live below the poverty line, more than double the poverty rate of the country as a whole (12.4 percent). In addition, almost half of Afro-Uruguayans only complete primary school (45 percent of men and 42 percent of Afro-Uruguayan women), and only 5.7 percent attain a university or postgraduate degree. Afro-Uruguayans have less access to education, which leads to lower wages and higher unemployment rates among Afro-Uruguayans: 14 percent of Afro-Uruguayans are unemployed, 3 points higher than the overall unemployment rate.

Democratic Uruguay has taken some steps to address this serious inequality. Recently, the Uruguayan legislature passed a law to grant more scholarships to Afro-Uruguayan citizens, improve access to vocational training, and set up quotas in government jobs, while providing subsidies for private industries. In addition, the bill would require that schools teach Afro-Uruguayan history. The law will only come into effect in 2015, at the earliest. Those extolling Uruguay's reputation as a defender of human rights must acknowledge that, despite these recent advances, Uruguay has a long history of ignoring the nation's chronic discrimination toward Afro-Uruguayans.

Meanwhile, Uruguay is poised to make disastrous decisions in another field: juvenile justice. Citing a rise in crime, the country is currently debating a bill to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16. This October, there will be a national referendum on whether to approve this law, which aims to deter youth crime by allowing much harsher penalties to apply to a broader range of citizens. Yet Uruguay is a signatory to international agreements protecting the rights of children until the age of 18, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which it ratified in 1990. Opponents of the law argue that lowering the age of criminal responsibility will not solve the problem of insecurity (since only 7 percent of crimes in Uruguay are committed by minors), but that the best way to solve juvenile delinquency is through work, rehabilitation, and education. On top of this, the United Nations has also routinely denounced the poor conditions in Uruguay's prisons -- making the possible passage of this law one of the most pressing human rights concerns in the nation. In parallel with the "No a la Baja" ("No to the Lowering") campaign that opposes the law, the country's foremost human rights film festival, Tenemos Que Ver, picked "children's rights" as the theme for this year's annual event. Yet this pressing human rights concern has also largely been ignored at an international level.

Lastly, and in some ways most troublingly, Uruguay is still struggling with the legacy of its authoritarian past. Similar to many other Southern Cone nations, Uruguay's strong democratic traditions devolved in the 1960s and 1970s, resulting in a dictatorship that lasted from 1973 to 1985. As described above, during this period Uruguay was often referred to as "the torture chamber of Latin America."

Since the nation transitioned to democratic rule, Uruguay has failed to hold the perpetrators of these crimes to account, and has yet to conclusively investigate the fates of the disappeared. Both the initial government inquiry in 1985 and a Peace Commission report in 2003 failed to determine the location of the bodies of the disappeared or fully investigate the circumstances surrounding their disappearances. Throughout both of these inquiries, the military refused to open its archives to investigators, and those files remain inaccessible to this day.

Aside from a few high-profile trials, like the one that led to Juan María Bordaberry's conviction in 2010, more widespread justice initiatives have also been stymied. Just last year, Mariana Mota, one of the most prominent judges advocating for courts to hear these cases, was transferred to a civilian court by the Supreme Court of Justice, and her criminal cases were largely dismissed. On top of this, and despite widespread protests, the Supreme Court also revalidated the statute of limitations against trying these crimes within the country, in effect renewing a law granting amnesty to members of the military, which had been overturned in October 2011.

These setbacks were particularly devastating for the activists who had spent the previous 30 years trying to learn what had become of their loved ones, and who thought President Mujica might help them in their quest for justice and truth. Having been a member of the Tupamaros, a left-wing urban guerrilla group that was active in the 1960s and 1970s, Mujica was targeted as a subversive by the military government and spent most of the dictatorship in solitary confinement. He was only released when the new democratic government took power in 1985. Many of his friends and comrades had been victims of the dictatorship, and he began his presidency by complying with an Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling to acknowledge state responsibility for the crimes of the dictatorship.

But since then, Mujica has been criticized for his role in reproducing conditions of impunity. Many were surprised to see Mujica participate in this year's "Marcha del Silencio," a yearly march marking the death of the two most famous "disappeared" politicians, Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz and Zelmar Michelini, who were killed in Buenos Aires during Operation Condor. (The photo above shows marchers carrying portraits of their disappeared relatives.) This year's march, held on May 20, was themed "¿Dónde están? ¿Por qué el silencio?" ("Where are they? Why the silence?") to protest the Mujica government's silence and resistance to issues of human rights accountability. Remaining in the middle of pack, Mujica did little to garner attention. He and his wife arrived without security and trudged along in the pounding rain for the last half of the silent march, on a night that, coincidentally, happened to be Mujica's 79th birthday. Some activists praised the president for bringing further attention to the march's objectives and hoped that his presence indicated that he would work to resolve these issues during the last few months of his presidency.

Others, however, were deeply critical. With presidential elections this fall, many castigated the president for playing politics at an event meant to cut across political divides. They also argued that he might have used his position of power to speak out against Mota's transfer, contest the Supreme Court amnesty decision, or launch a fact-finding mission, rather than merely participating in a purely symbolic event.

Mujica's symbolic presence at this march, underscored by his continued inaction on accountability issues, provides a window into the complicated human rights legacy the president is leaving behind. For all the advances the country has made, it is just as important to recognize that Mujica and his successors have a lot of work to do if they truly want Uruguay to return to being the "Switzerland of South America."

PABLO PORCIUNCULA/AFP/GettyImages

Democracy Lab

Why Haiti Needs a National Dialogue

Four years after a devastating earthquake, Haiti remains a mess. It's time to bring Haitians from all walks of life into a national conversation about the country's future.


Note: This article is an abridged version of a longer report, "Escaping the Crisis Trap: New Options for Haiti," produced by the Legatum Institute and the Institute for State Effectiveness.

On the afternoon of January 12, 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. Shoddy construction compounded the scale of the devastation; many buildings collapsed on their occupants. Government figures put the dead at over 300,000, with as many injured, in a city of 2.5 million. Overnight, more than 1.3 million people -- nearly a tenth of Haiti's population -- were homeless. The overall damage estimates amounted to $7.9 billion, 120 percent of Haiti's 2009 GDP. The aftermath brought immediate, extreme challenges: 40 percent unemployment, widespread hunger, and frequent disease outbreaks caused by poor sanitation.

The international response was instantaneous and generous. Donor nations pledged $5 billion in short-term aid and $10 billion over the long term. They also committed to work through government mechanisms to build the country's capacity for self-sufficiency. Four years on, their efforts have unquestionably yielded progress: 90 percent of the homeless have been resettled, 80 percent of the rubble has been cleared, and joblessness continues to decline. There is even some promise of new foreign investment in Haiti.

Yet the international effort's results have fallen far short of the expectations of both Haitians and donor nations. Unemployment and food insecurity are still prevalent in Haiti. One hundred thousand people continue to live in squalid camps characterized by poverty, cholera epidemics, and sexual violence toward women. (The photo above features two boys who live in a camp for earthquake survivors in Port-au-Prince.) Haiti remains the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, with a per capita income of $777.10 -- a fraction of what their Dominican neighbors earn.

Moreover, progress toward self-sufficiency remains slow. The training of a new national police force is not advancing fast enough to stem the current reliance on U.N. troops for security. This cultivates the sense among ordinary Haitians that they are an occupied nation. The Haitian government still depends on donor assistance and remittances from abroad for nearly all of its revenue.

Instead of working to rebuild the country's long-dysfunctional government, as they committed to do after the earthquake, donor nations and aid organizations fell into a trap that we refer to as the "sovereignty paradox." Unable or unwilling to trust government institutions as reliable partners in their aid operations, NGOs and their funders programmed around them, creating parallel administrative structures that effectively undermined Haiti's government and alienated its people. This disappointment provides an opportunity for Haitians and their partners to pause, regroup, and set the agenda for the future. We accordingly call for the creation of a "national discussion" involving individuals and groups, especially young people, throughout the country. It would aim to take stock of Haiti's considerable assets and generate grassroots pressure to transform the Haitian political and governmental system.

The tiny island nation's troubles extend far back into history: Originally claimed for the Spanish crown in 1492, Haiti was subsequently colonized by the French. In 1804, Haiti declared independence from France, constituting the only successful slave revolt mounted in the Americas. An ensuing succession of chaotic governments vied for control of Haiti well into the 20th century. Despite several attempts at participatory elections, democratic rule proved elusive. Corrupt and wealthy elites maintained their power, backed by thuggish security forces. Meanwhile, most Haitians lacked the most basic access to justice, education, or health care.

Haiti seemed poised for fundamental change in 1991, when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest, became its first democratically elected head of state. The military and police structure resisted change, however, and seven months into his presidency, the military overthrew Aristide. He returned to Haiti under the aegis of the United Nations and Bill Clinton's administration in 1994. Since then, a pattern of successive elections, ouster, deadlock, and intervention have reduced government into more of a revolving door than a platform for meaningful change.

In Haiti, political office has always been the main and often only means of upward mobility. Incumbents resort to any means to secure their inherently precarious political positions -- including violence. A narrow, kleptocratic elite has captured key positions in government agencies and civil society organizations. As a result, neither represents nor caters to the interests of the majority of the country: the poor. Few Haitians see elections as having any effect on their lives.

Hindered by weak, dysfunctional public institutions, Haiti has been unable to create the basic conditions for private-sector growth: reliable market regulations, transparent property rights, a secure banking system, etc. Without growth, poor Haitians lack opportunity, and the Haitian government lacks a tax base to use to wean itself off foreign aid.

Donors complain about the Haitian government's lack of accountability, but they themselves set a poor example of successful finance management and transparency. The U.N. agencies, NGOs, and contractors have yet to publish accounts of financial expenditure that are readily available to Haitian citizens. They waste time and money on duplicating inefficient projects because they fail to coordinate with one another or with local governments. Meanwhile, they are complicit in the siphoning off of significant foreign-aid dollars for favored NGO and U.N. contractors. Only 10 percent of the $6.04 billion in funding donated between 2010 and 2012 went to the Haitian government, and less than 0.6 percent went to Haitian organizations and businesses. By circumventing Haitian institutions in the effort to deliver aid, the donor community missed an opportunity to use its resources to reform the institutions themselves.

Though the situation in Haiti remains dire, the country could build upon its considerable assets to move away from aid dependency. The discovery of gold and nickel deposits holds the promise of new jobs and significant government revenues. A 2010 trade agreement with the United States provides favorable import access for Haitian textiles. The country has barely begun to exploit its potential for tourism, an industry central to the economies of other Caribbean countries. There is also considerable growth potential in the Haitian agricultural, construction, and telecommunications sectors. Taking advantage of these assets requires the donor community to use its resources in ways that promote Haitian self-sufficiency. For example, in the massive post-earthquake rebuilding efforts, NGOs have tended to give construction contracts to Dominican firms rather than taking a chance on less-experienced Haitian firms. Haiti also requires better-functioning government institutions and legislation to advance reform, such as well-framed mining laws to guard against corruption and rent-seeking.

The first step is to establish conditions for a national dialogue that would cut across traditional class, party, and geographical lines, giving voices outside the usual political elites an opportunity to participate in shaping the national agenda. Individuals who truly represent Haiti's diversity can collaborate to develop a shared vision for their country's future. This vision would endure beyond any single elected government or charismatic leader -- providing an overarching benchmark by which Haitians can hold their government accountable. National dialogues have already helped to undergird political and economic reforms in many countries, including Chile, Guatemala, Peru, and Mexico.

The process should start with Haiti's young. Half of Haiti's 10 million people are under 25, and it is critical that a national dialogue should consider what they want their country to look like in 15 to 20 years; this will determine the dialogue's power to drive Haiti's future. Effective education is critical to cultivating a new generation of leaders. Today, more than half of Haiti's population is illiterate. The country's overall education statistics are among the worst in the Western Hemisphere. All too often, low-income countries focus solely on primary education -- but this is not enough to give the next generation the technical know-how in science, agriculture, education, and commerce that it needs to drive the country forward.

In the short term, the government can draw upon the talents of the 1 million strong Haitian diaspora. Returning Haitians could also help to mentor the next generation of leaders. They can also share their knowledge on how other countries used remittances to drive economic activity and boost employment, such as through home loans, construction loans, or investment in small business and education.

This national dialogue must identify and prioritize programs to promote growth and skills development and address entrenched problems: poverty, unemployment, failing infrastructure, and weak institutions. These problems can be solved, but Haiti's government must unlock its potential to overcome them.

Photo by VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images