Struggling to overcome violence in Uruguay

By Juan Michel
21 Jul 2009

Dispelling the myth of "a little peaceful country", an international ecumenical Living Letters team visited Uruguay and discovered how violence manifests itself at the levels of family life, the state and youth and how the churches in this South American country seek to overcome it.

"Some of the members of the Living Letters team had the idyllic vision that they had brought with them changed when they met the actual situation here," said Pastor Oscar Bolioli, President of the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Uruguay, who hosted the visit.

"This is not a peaceful society," stated Gerardo Caetano, a historian and university teacher, speaking to members of the Living Letters team, drawn from Germany, Norway, Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil and Kenya, who visited Uruguay, 9-11 July 2009.

Living Letters is an initiative of the World Council of Churches (WCC), and consists of small ecumenical teams who visit churches in various countries to listen, learn and share ways of overcoming violence and promoting peace.

According to Caetano, there has been a breakdown in Uruguayan society resulting in the creation of poor ghettos and rich ghettos. It is a society which finds it difficult to face up to its conflicts. "It is a society that exploits its own members," he declared.

While political leaders were incapable of engaging in deep thought on the issue, Caetano said, public perception was increasingly dominated by the myth that violence had its origins in the marginalized sectors of society. Young people in particular were often objects of suspicion, he said.

This "criminalisation" of the young was also emphasized by Dr Alba Negrín, a specialist in addiction. She explained that, contrary to what is usually believed, the most widespread addiction is to alcohol.

Violence within families is a phenomenon that has always existed, but has often been hidden, explained Lilian Abracinskas, a campaigner for women's rights. She said that the difference now is that "we are encouraged to speak out" and more cases are brought to light.

The wounds of state terrorism

The case of those who were arrested and who disappeared during the dictatorship which governed the country between 1973 and 1985, is an unresolved issue on the agenda of Uruguayan democracy, said Eduardo Pirotto, of the South American non-governmental organization Peace and Justice Service (SERPAJ).

Organizations defending human rights have documented around 300 disappearances. A Peace Commission stated in 2002 that 81 individuals (26 in Uruguay and 55 in Argentina) were abducted, tortured and killed in secret detention centres between 1971 and 1981.

Pirotto said that successive democratic governments have lacked the political will to bring the truth to light and to bring those responsible for these crimes before the courts.

Their justification, he said, is that they are protected by an amnesty law ratified by plebiscite in 1989. A plebiscite to repeal the law is to take place next October.

The Living Letters team heard first-hand testimony of the struggle for truth by victims of state terrorism from Macarena Gelman, the daughter of Argentinean victims of disappearances.

Gelman was born in November 1976 in Uruguay, where her mother was detained under the coordinated repression plan of the South American dictatorships. She was adopted by a police officer and only discovered her identity in 2000, after the death of her adoptive father and thanks to a tireless search by her grandfather, the Argentinean poet Juan Gelman.

Macarena Gelman continues her investigations to discover the truth about what became of her mother and continues to hope that justice will be done for those who disappeared.

Her testimony is typical of those who are searching for their disappeared loved ones, said Bolioli. "In a way, this shows the fragility of Uruguayan democracy, dominated by a small group that claims to be above the law, to control the truth and the fate of others."

The work of the churches to overcome violence

The Living Letters team visited various projects of the Uruguayan churches and other civil society organizations, such as the Pastoral Centre for Women and Families, of the Methodist Church in Uruguay, and the Methodist Instituto de Buena Voluntad, which offers training for handicapped adolescents.

At the Voice of Women Foundation, a pioneer organization in the department of Colonia in southwestern Uruguay, the Living Letters team had the opportunity to see the work being done since 1992 with victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

The Foundation, formed by members of the Waldensian Evangelical Church of the River Plate, provides support, prevention and training and is present in hospitals, schools, churches and other institutions.

The Living Letters team also met with representatives of the First National 'Vaccination' Campaign against child abuse launched in 2003 under the title "Treatment for good treatment" ("Un trato por un buen trato"). The campaign consists of symbolic vaccinations aiming to raise awareness of the problem. Those who are 'vaccinated' commit to listening to children and teenagers who are abuse victims, to believe them and to give them protection.

In the Barrio Borro Ecumenical Centre, an initiative of the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Uruguay, the Living Letters team visited a 20-year-old project for children, youth and women in a northern suburb of the capital city Montevideo, where thousands of low-income families live. The initiative is based on the belief that society should stimulate excluded sectors instead of simply mitigating the effects of an unjust social system.

"These visits enabled the Living Letters team to get an idea of the churches' efforts to respond to social problems in Uruguay," Bolioli said. The visit ended with a meeting with church members and pastors in Montevideo.

For the Uruguayan churches, the visit provided an opportunity "to reflect and take a fresh look at the ways in which they can respond to violence, particularly in view of the forthcoming national elections in October," Bolioli added.

Living Letters visits are being organized within the framework of the WCC Decade to Overcome Violence in preparation for the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation, to be held in Kingston, Jamaica, in May 2011.

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© Juan Michel is the World Council of Churches’ media relations officer (http://www.oikoumene.org/). He is a member of the Evangelical Church of the River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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