President, Amnesty Law Under Fire In Uruguay

Human rights violations committed during Uruguay’s 1970s and 1980s-era military regimes have come back to haunt the South American country, where the legislature’s recent failure to revoke a stubborn amnesty law has sparked a major political crisis.

A photograph of one of Uruguay's disappeared.
A photograph of one of Uruguay's disappeared.


Horacio Gelós Bonilla was with his uncle in the main square in the Uruguayan city of Maldonado in the early evening of Jan. 2, 1976 when two men emerged from a truck and arrested him. That was the last time his family saw the 32-year-old labor leader. Bonilla was reportedly taken to a local jail where witnesses later reported they heard his cries as he was being beaten, until he went silent.

Since early 1985, when democracy was restored in Uruguay, Bonilla's family has been searching for him. His disappearance is one of more than 200 unresolved cases for which Uruguayans are demanding answers, throwing the country into its worst constitutional crisis since democracy returned.

President José Mujica's Broad Front coalition is bitterly divided over the issue. On May 20, the coalition failed to get a 1985 amnesty law revoked when the proposal fell short by one vote after one of the group's lawmakers decided to abstain. The amnesty law had previously survived a pair of popular referendums – in 1989 and 2009.

Now, however, international human rights groups are pressuring the government to follow the example being set in neighboring Argentina and allow the legal system to finally go after military regime-era human rights violators

Mujica, a former Marxist guerrilla who was captured by security forces and spent time in prison during Uruguay's military backed governments (1973-85), had asked the Broad Front not to push for the repeal. The president said he doesn't think lawmakers should ignore the results of the two referendums. He said the most important thing is to move on.

As legislators voted on the amnesty issue, hundreds of activists gathered outside Congress demanding an end to the amnesty law and a start to legal action against former military officers suspected of kidnappings and killings. Some even telephoned lawmakers to ask that they vote in favor of the repeal.

The organization Mothers and Families of Missing and Arrested Uruguayans has written to the president on a number of occasions to try to convince him to change his position.

Mujica's approval rating among the grass roots membership of the Broad Front coalition has dropped 11% since the debacle in Congress. In an effort to please both human rights organizations and his political allies, the president has ordered his lawyers to evaluate how prosecutors could skirt the amnesty law and reopen 88 missing persons and torture cases.

Columnists such a Javier García of Montevideo's El País having been fanning the flames of popular discontent. García recently accused the Broad Front of insulting the intelligence of Uruguayans.

Uruguay's largest labor union, Pit-CNT, has chimed in on the matter as well, calling for "firm but peaceful demonstrations in defense of the construction of a society without impunity." Many of the Pit-CNT's leaders were killed during the military-backed regimes.

Martin Delfín

Photo- Libertinus

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!