Uruguay, Eduardo Galeano and football sanctity in the land of the disappeared

Uruguay, Eduardo Galeano and football sanctity in the land of the disappeared

“The veins of Latin America are bleeding.” In a leafy suburb of Montevideo, in a street of boutique houses painted chilli red and pepper green, the cries of sobbing mothers fill the air. They come in numbers these mothers of Uruguay’s lost sons, their mournful hum carrying them past rusted Fords and battered Fiats. With arms aloft, they hold accusatory placards in hand.

The placards’ plywood frames carry images of a kind-looking man, with humble tufts of grey hair and a warm smile that gives way to a bristling moustache. On one placard, a photograph shows him bear-hugging Uruguay striker Luis Suárez, as both celebrate an injury-time winner at the World Cup. On another, the grey-haired man shakes the hands of El Maestro, as revered national team coach Óscar Tabarez is known.

As the procession edges forward, the vibrant colours of the street slowly slip away, until all that remains is a single, solemn grey building with prison-barred windows. It is here, at the intersection of streets Maldonado y Paraguay, that the mothers come to a halt. In front of the former headquarters of Uruguay’s Dirección National de Información y Inteligencia (DNII), metres away from the very rooms where between 1973 and 1985 a military dictatorship’s intelligence service tortured and murdered their sons, the mothers reveal a new placard.

The placard sports an image of the same grey-haired man. Yet this time, he doesn’t look so sympathetic. Now, a grainy photograph shows him wearing the military garb of the DNII. A subtitle appears at the bottom of the image: El Zúlu. Miguel Zuluaga’s interrogative methods were so ferocious that his DNII colleagues thought it appropriate that he be called by the shortened version of his surname. Where the Zulus had butchered the British, El Zúlu was part of a DNII team that would butcher Uruguay’s political opposition. A staggering 194 political dissidents died under the DNII’s charge.

Since 2000, Zuluaga has been employed by the Uruguayan Football Association (AUF) as head of security for the national team. From 2011, the AUF has known that Zuluaga was formerly a member of the notorious Department V torture squad in the DNII, yet as the women congregate outside that grey building on Maldonado y Paraguay, the date is 20 May 2018. For seven years, the federation has done nothing. In under a month, Zuluaga is set to fly to Russia to represent La Celeste at the World Cup.

“Uruguay does not have history, instead it has football,” Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano once wrote with withering scorn. Galeano was referring to the amnesia and deflection that has come to define a nation’s relationship to its past. Rather than confront the traumas and despair of the dictatorship era, many Uruguayans have adopted a strategy of emotional repression.

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In popular referenda in both 1989 and 2009, the country endorsed a culture of impunity, forgoing prosecutions against former members of the military junta. “Uruguayans prefer now to forget the past rather than listen to it, to accept a future rather than re-imagine it,” Galeano wrote in 2011.

Yet this repression of the past in everyday life has produced a countervailing phenomenon in Uruguayans’ dreams. As Galeano’s fellow writer Mario Benedetti wrote in his novel The Pitch, many Uruguayans now live a double life. In the day, they deny the feelings of despair. But at night, these feelings seek expression through fantasies of redemption and glory, of Uruguay once again being a nation that can be proud of itself.

The easiest way for a small peace-loving nation to achieve glory? Football of course. For Galeano, this was characteristic of a Uruguay in which the world now worked in reverse: “It used to be that football offered a short distraction from politics, now it is politics that offers a short distraction from football.”

This investment in football to redeem a nation’s sordid history has led to a culture of idealisation around the national team. As sociologist Sebastián Bonilla has found, La Celeste are projected by many Uruguayans as the antithesis of the corruption and spent morals of the military era. A nation’s glorious footballing past and future allows Uruguayans to circumnavigate the painful political history that lies in between.

When asked about history, a quarter of Uruguayans automatically substitute the nation’s footballing history for its political one. Ask a Uruguayan about 1986 and one in four tell you about the Mexican World Cup rather than the Ley de Caducidad, the famous law passed that year offering amnesty to the dictatorship. 

Benedetti predicted Uruguayans would seek escapism from the past in a double life. They have instead done so in constructing a double history, with a glorious sporting one to replace the corrupt political past. As placards are raised into the Montevideo sky outside a grey building on Maldonado y Paraguay, Miguel Zuluaga, Uruguay’s own ‘Zúlu Celeste’, represents the greatest affront to a nation’s attempt to preserve the sanctity of the national team from the excesses of the political past.

Many Uruguayans have resigned themselves to the return of a culture of impunity in their country. After a brief surge in prosecutions against former members of the dictatorship between 2005 and 2011, they have looked the other way as Uruguay’s Supreme Court has quietly closed down one case after another. There were no placards or strikes when, in 2013, the Supreme Court removed Judge Mariana Mota from more than 50 cases of human rights violations perpetrated during the authoritarian regime. Similarly, no great political furore was heard in September 2017 when the Supreme Court seemed to act unconstitutionally in throwing out allegations made by a woman who claimed to have been illegally detained and tortured in 1972.

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But this was football, and when the reputation of La Celeste is involved, things proceed differently. Within 24 hours of the Uruguayan weekly Brecha publishing new leaked evidence against Zuluaga on 28 March 2018, over 40 social organisations had signed a petition to the AUF demanding he be fired. On 8 May, 300,000 protestors took to the streets demanding Zuluaga go, singing outside the offices of the AUF, “The Team/ The Team/ We won’t have a torturer in the team.”

The AUF’s main sponsor, the private health insurer Asociación Española, was reported in several dailies to be considering pulling its funding. Finally, on 21 May, the day after mothers had peaked through prison-barred windows towards memories of their lost sons, Zuluaga was fired.

Yet Zuluaga’s firing has not brought the closure many thought it would. Instead, it has presented a ‘through the looking glass’ moment in which Uruguayans have been forced to confront the broader politics underlying their national team. Amidst the celebratory headlines following Zuluaga’s firing, one newspaper’s front-page captured this new anxiety. “Somos un País de la Cola de Paja? (Are we a nation of men with straw tails?), La Diaria asked.

Benedetti’s caustic 1960 essay, Un País de la Cola de Paja, denounced a Uruguay in which individuals turned a blind eye to social evils, preferring the complacency of a life lived in peace to the search for truth and justice. As Benedetti quipped: “Men with straw tails do not go near fire.” The uncomfortable truth is that the fire surrounding Zuluaga had been burning for a long time, yet most simply preferred to look the other way.

As early as 2011, Zuluaga was publicly indicted before Montevideo’s 17th tribunal court by Uruguay’s reputed human rights lawyer Pablo Chargoña. Chargoña told the court of video footage showing Zuluaga conducting interrogations, signing detention orders, and appearing in various DNII departments. Audio could be heard of other DNII officials chanting “Zulu! Zulu! Zulu!”, as an unidentifiable person administered torture to a political detainee.

Chargoña reminded the court that it was impossible that Zuluaga could have been present at the DNII’s headquarters at Maldonado y Paraguay and not known that torture was occurring. When a government-led investigative commission had examined the headquarters in the 1990s, they found an open space, in which it was possible to see into every room and hear even the slightest sound from across the hall.

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While Zuluaga’s indictment was publicly accessible on the Uruguayan court’s website, not one of the country’s dailies reported the story. The only institution that did was Uruguay’s University of the Republic, which featured a series of posts on the indictment. By the time the Supreme Court archived the indictment in 2013, in a move that attracted widespread condemnation from international human rights groups, the AUF had still not made any statements on the matter.

In 2014, a new set of evidence against Zuluaga came to the public’s attention. Still the AUF did nothing. Brecha published the testimony of three former political detainees at Maldonado y Paraguay. Luis Libschitz recalled being told by Zuluaga during an interrogation that “you should be wise to tell us everything before you get yourself hurt, before you get yourself killed.” Ruben Waisrub, just 18 years old when he was detained in 1976, recalled seeing Zuluaga watching over the guards as they gave kicks and punches.

Diego Damián testified to being raped, waterboarded and beaten at Maldonado. For Damián, “it is impossible for Zuluaga to say he did not know this was happening … the walls of his office were so close to the prison cells, and you could hear everything. Trust me, I tried to stop hearing things. But in that space, you heard it all.”

Documents published by Brecha showed detention orders signed by Zuluaga targeting foreign doctors who had entered the country. The motive for these orders? As an order from 1 September 1981 explained, “These doctors need to be arrested because they are trying to seek access to the detainees to assess their health.” 

Remarkably, no other newspaper outlet apart from Brecha reported the allegations. Nor did the AUF’s then-president Sebastián Bauza field any questions about the affair. In fact, 2014 saw Zuluaga receive a pay rise from the AUF following the success of his security measures at the Brazil World Cup.

Perhaps in a country where only 10 people have been imprisoned for crimes committed during the dictatorship, such impunity is to be expected. But across the Río de la Plata, in the land of Uruguay’s eternal rival Argentina, another Maldonado is showing it does not need to be this way. Football can be a medium through to which confront impunity.

Buenos Aires, August 2017. From the soft pastel blue and white seats of Racing Club’s stadium, fans fire down well-aimed rolls of toilet paper upon the opposition players emerging below. Amidst this shower of bathroom artillery – the traditional Racing greeting for visiting teams – a cry echoes around the stadium: “Where is Santiago Maldonado? Macri tell us where Maldonado is!”

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Across Argentina’s stadiums, from Racing to River, Boca to Belgrano, football fans have taken up the case of the country’s most recent desaparecido or missing person. A 28-year-old backpacker, the last time anyone had seen Maldonado was on the bank of an icy Patagonian river on 1 August, where he was reportedly surrendering to Argentine border guards during a raid on a camp of indigenous protestors. Having joined a protest against the Italian clothes company Benetton’s incursion onto indigenous land, witnesses had seen Maldonado flee to the side of a frozen river then turn back and surrender to baton-wielding officers.

As Racing play Temperley on 27 August, nobody has heard or seen Maldonado for four weeks. His disappearance has triggered haunting memories of the military dictatorship that presided over Argentina between 1976 and 1983. General Jorge Videla’s ESMA security service killed or forcibly disappeared an estimated 30,000 people. ESMA pushed their victims, still alive, from plane holds into the sea below. Never to be found again, disappeared: Los Desaparecidos.

For many in Argentina, Maldonado’s disappearance is a symbol of the dangerous political road the country is heading down under right-wing President Mauricio Macri. Macri has repeatedly downplayed the crimes of the dictatorship era in an attempt to legitimise a strong-arm military government. Yet Argentina’s football fans and governing bodies have not allowed Macri’s distorting of the past to go unchallenged.

As Julio Mafud, a sociologist at the University of Buenos Aires has reported, football fans have played a key role in organising the three nationwide strikes that rocked Macri’s government in May 2018. Similarly, the Argentine Football Association (AFA) has joined hands with Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, an organisation of family members of the disappeared, to raise awareness about the dictatorship’s crimes. 

Before his death in 2014, Eduardo Galeano published one last essay. His Brief History of Impunity includes a poem entitled The Nobodies. It describes a society that lives in total silence, one that slowly allows the natural order of things to be reversed. Soon, the innocent are the ones who are imprisoned, while the criminals sit in power. Such was the price of silence for Galeano, “Those who believe silence is just a vacuum are idiots, it is the father that gives birth to the disease of impunity.”

As Uruguay too sees a resurgence of the ghosts of the past, its president, Tabaré Vazquez, having failed repeatedly to condemn military killings of political activists, would be wise to keep Galeano’s words in mine. “I sleep just fine at night, I have a clean conscience,” Miguel Zuluaga told journalists immediately after being fired. Do the AUF’s executives feel the same?

By Alexander Shea @alexjshea

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