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The Case of General Seregni

The selective genocide carried out by the Argentine military regime—that mixture of horror story and Kafkaesque nightmare that has affected tens of thousands of people who have been murdered, arrested, tortured, or have “disappeared”—has turned the attention of the mass media away from what has happened and is still happening in its neighboring country, Uruguay. But the brutality of the methods used by Uruguayan militarists to keep themselves in power emulates, perhaps goes beyond, that of their Argentine colleagues.

Since 1971—the year when large-scale repression was unleashed—the number of political prisoners in that country has risen from several hundred to a figure of six thousand. In 1971 Amnesty International estimated that one out of five hundred Uruguayan citizens was imprisoned for political reasons, and that one in every fifty of them had been arrested, interrogated, and sometimes tortured—for days, weeks, or months—for the same reasons. Although these figures have gone down somewhat over the last two years, the records of Amnesty International for 1979 indicate that approximately 2,800 political prisoners are still rotting in the military installations and civil jails used as detention centers. That is, one percent of all Uruguayans are still political prisoners. If we add to that the half million exiles and an indeterminate number—hundreds? thousands?—of those held without trial or accusation, we will have an approximate picture of the base on which the regime headed by Dr. Aparicio Méndez rests. The Uruguayan novelist Carlos Martinez Moreno says:

Uruguayan jails are filled with prisoners condemned to the last end of absurdity, for crimes they haven’t committed, with sentences of years and years that they wouldn’t have under a just and reasonable code of law, and which have been the result of trials that haven’t observed proper guarantees and were forged within the scope of complete adulteration that disguises as legal a procedure that is only the exercise of repression and vengeance with a blatant political stamp.

With tragic frequency, prisoners undergoing interrogation in military posts never come to trial, and die; other times, tried and sent to military prisons, they never see the day of their release and commit suicide. The order of the repression—first investigative, then penal—feigns ignorance of any corpses, sending them to military morgues.

The evidence of this repression is overwhelming. It includes declarations by Lieutenant Julio César Cooper to Amnesty International in 1976 concerning the means and techniques of torture used by his colleagues (the “footsole,” the “submarine,” the “parrot perch,” the “sawhorse,” the “flag,” the “cattle prod,” etc.). the accusations of lawyers in exile regarding the base violation on the part of military judges of universally respected juridical norms (“In such a climate,” one of them declared, “to proceed like a lawyer is almost the same as exposing oneself to the risk of being placed in the status of the client”); and testimony from those held at the Libertad, Punta Carretas, and Punta de Rieles prisons. But this evidence runs up against the blank wall of indifference of foreign public opinion concerning Latin America and the Third World. The recent publication of a series of pamphlets by Amnesty International on the subject, as well as Martínez Moreno’s excellent article, “Seregni Before His Judges” (Cuadernos de Marcha, May-June, 1979), and the short volume published by the Spanish-Uruguayan Task Force June 9, 1973, cast an even more raw light on the scope of the Uruguayan drama and should have shaken up, once and for all, the incomprehensible lethargy of democratic opinion in Spain.

Since it is impossible for me to analyze here all the elements and aspects of the repressive system that exists in Uruguay, I shall limit myself to pointing out the scandalous circumstances that involve one concrete case: that of the retired general Liber Seregni, candidate of the Broad Front in the last elections held in Uruguay. (His example is not the only one among military men of democratic views; we have only to recall the names of General Víctor Licandro, held without trial for six years; Colonels Carlos Zufriategui, Pedro Aguerre, and Pedro Montañés; Captain Carlos Arrarte, for the “crime,” no less, of having tried in 1972 to halt the use of torture on military posts. In all, twenty commanders and officers of the army are detained.)

General Liber Seregni was born in Montevideo in 1916. In 1933 he entered the Military Academy, from which he was graduated in 1936 with the rank of second lieutenant. In 1944 he was named military attaché to the United States and Mexico. In 1948 he was promoted General Staff officer and successively reached the grades of lieutenant colonel (1952), colonel (1957), and general (1963). From 1964 to 1967 he was commander of the Second Military Region, with headquarters in San José, and in 1967 assumed the command of the First Military Region (Montevideo), a post that he filled until he sought and obtained his retirement in 1969.

The economic and social crisis that had been incubating in Uruguay since the last years of the Fifties was translated during the first half of 1968 into a series of industrial strikes and student demonstrations that laid bare the precarious foundation on which Uruguayan development rested. When the guerrilla warfare of the Tupamaros began to take place, the then president of the republic Pacheco Areco adopted, against the will of Parliament, “emergency security measures” and an economic policy destined to make the lower classes pay for the effects of the crisis. Confronted with the dilemma of intervening to repress workers and students, General Seregni met with President Pacheco Areco and made known his views on the extremely serious political and social situation in the country—a crisis that could only be resolved, according to him, through a combination of resources diametrically opposed to those propounded by the president. Because of the complete disagreement between them, Seregni asked permission to go into retirement, which was granted in April of 1969.

During that and the following year the situation became polarized. The Tupamaros launched a series of spectacular attacks. The government continued its unpopular economic policy and accentuated the repression, gradually allowing its powers to fall into the hands of the army. In 1970 Pacheco Areco declared a state of siege in order to confront the Tupamaros. In turn, the parties of the left and labor unions coordinated their forces to oppose the government, which not only ignored the opinion of Parliament, but openly violated the Constitution and abolished public liberties. When elections were called for 1971, the opposition decided to form the Broad Front as a democratic and progressive alternative to the musty and ineffectual traditional bipartisanship. General Seregni, who had participated in the formation of the front from the beginning, was named its candidate for president of the republic.

During the electoral campaign, Seregni recommended a program, described as both democratic and anti-imperialist, which would establish civil control and a planned and nationalized management of the key points of the economic system so as to bring the country out of its stagnation. In order to achieve these objectives, he proposed the use of legal, democratic, and peaceful means. These proposals, perfectly legitimate within Uruguayan constitutional bounds, would serve, nevertheless, as the basis for his future judges to condemn him for an “attack on the Constitution.”

In the 1971 elections, in spite of the pressures, threats, and violence used against it, the Broad Front obtained 18 percent of the vote. The candidate of the Colorado Party, Juan María Bordaberry, was elected president, while the armed confrontations between the army and the Tupamaros continued to become more and more violent. On the urging of the armed forces, Bordaberry obtained from Parliament approval for an “internal state of war,” and on June 27, 1973, he dissolved the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, suspended the right of assembly, and established censorship of the press. On July 9 the Broad Front organized a large peaceful rally against the presidential coup. General Seregni, who had taken part in the demonstration, was arrested as he returned home the same day.

Seregni was tried for an “attack against the Constitution through preparation, conspiracy, and conspiracy followed by preparatory acts.” In April, 1974, his case was brought before the Army Court of Honor, which, in accordance with military regulations, judged his conduct according to “moral convictions.” This tribunal condemned Seregni “for grievous fault,” to the loss of his military rank. In November, 1974, Seregni obtained conditional freedom, but remained under virtual house arrest and his request to leave the country was refused.

In 1976 during an upsurge of terrorist attacks, he was arrested again and imprisoned in a secret place for a month. The military judge accused him of “usurpation of public functions” (for having authorized the construction of safety barriers and pedestrian islands by militants of the Broad Front during the electoral campaign), of an “attack on the Constitution” (in fact, this was to punish him for his “ideological deviation”), and of the “illegal bearing of arms” (in spite of the fact that the weapon in question had been given him by order of the Ministry of the Interior during the electoral campaign after information was obtained that an attempt on his life was being planned).

Although the military prosecutor asked for a sentence of “only” ten years, on March 9, 1978, the military judge sentenced Seregni to fourteen years in prison for the crimes of rioting (his participation in the peaceful demonstration of July 9, 1973), disrespect (his criticism of Pacheco Areco during the electoral campaign, when the latter was a candidate for the presidency), etc. In order to appreciate the “objectivity” of Uruguayan military justice, one has to remember that in the sentencing Seregni was reproached for the fact that his father was “an émigré anarchist,” for having attended, when he was a high-ranking officer in the army, an official reception at the Soviet Embassy, and even for his old friendship with Colonel Juan López Silveyra, who in his youth had done the shameful act of going to fight in Spain “against General Franco’s revolution”(!).

These are the facts and I leave the reader to judge them. I shall conclude only by saying that widespread publication of the facts in the case, and public pressure for his release can contribute effectively to a review of the trial and eventual freedom for the leader of the Broad Front. The recent release of Ben Bella in Algeria; Lolita Lebrón in the United States, and Martha Frayde in Cuba—to mention three cases in which I have been particularly interested—proves, without a doubt, the strength of public opinion to oppose the use of illegal repressive procedures employed by authoritarian regimes on the right and on the left.

translated by Gregory Rabassa

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