Disappeared In Uruguay
By Nick OlleApril 10, 2012
Nearly four decades after the coup that began Uruguay’s 1973—1985 military dictatorship, the nation is still coming to grips with the darkest chapter of its history.
Macarena Gelman takes a deep breath, lowers then raises her gaze, and begins.
"It was in 2000, I came home and found my mother crying. I asked her over and over what was wrong but she could barely speak.
"I sat down with her and eventually I asked if it had to do with me, her or my father. She said, 'All three.'
"Then — and I don't know why — I asked if I wasn't their child. I really don't know why I said it, I'd never had any doubts about that."
Macarena, now 35, is recounting how she came to learn her true identity after living for 23 years as Macarena Tauriño, daughter of a Uruguayan policeman and his wife.
She owes the truth in large part, she says, to her biological grandfather, the renowned Argentine poet Juan Gelman, who spent years searching for her and with whom she brought a landmark case against Uruguay before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the ICHR.
Her biological parents, Argentines María Claudia García and Marcelo Gelman, were victims of the notorious Operation Condor, in which military regimes in Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia cooperated to repress, torture and kill intellectuals, socialists and other opponents.
Conservative estimates suggest a minimum of 60,000 people were "disappeared" during Operation Condor — including about 200 in Uruguay — and countless more were imprisoned and tortured.
María and Marcelo were kidnapped on August 24, 1976 and taken to the Automotores Orletti clandestine detention centre in Buenos Aires. Marcelo was killed in October 1976 and the heavily pregnant María was moved to the Servicio de Información de Defensa (SID) detention centre in Montevideo, Uruguay.
Shortly after giving birth to Macarena in captivity — probably on November 1, 1976, though Macarena is not entirely sure of the date — María disappeared.
Macarena was left in a basket on the doorstep of Ángel and Vivián Tauriño's home, and about a year and a half later the couple registered her as their own daughter.
Fast-forward 35 years and Macarena works for Argentina's Human Rights Department, dividing her time between her native Montevideo and Buenos Aires (she holds both Uruguayan and Argentine citizenship). Macarena is Uruguay's only known "appropriated baby", but several of her Argentine colleagues at the ministry also were raised by adoptive families only to discover their real identity later.
"We share something profound," she says. "We do talk about it, sometimes it's a kind of dark humour, but I do find it helps.
"I am comfortable with who I am."
Macarena bears no malice to her adoptive parents and says Vivián (Ángel died several months before his wife's confession) has "accompanied me through the process", including her name-change to Gelman and the drawn out court case.
The ICHR's decision in the Gelman case, as it's become known, marks a watershed moment in how Uruguay treats the horrors carried out during the 1973 to 1985 military dictatorship, its "dirty war".
The February 24, 2011 judgment forced the State to publicly recognise its responsibility for the forced disappearance of María and the birth in captivity of Macarena.
The Uruguayan president, José Mujica, did this on March 21, 2012, in a ceremony attended by Macarena and Juan Gelman. The same day, a plaque was unveiled in the former SID building that reads: "In memory of María Claudia Gelman and all of the victims of State terrorism that were deprived of their freedom in this building".
Both powerful symbolic gestures, but forcing this express recognition from the State represents only half the success of the Gelman verdict.
According to Macarena Gelman, the "open wound" left behind by the military junta has provoked a dual response: "Truth and justice, we all want both of these things as they are indivisible."
March 21 was about truth, and in this sense it did not break new ground. The State has explicitly recognised its role in the denial of human rights in legislation, such as Law 18.596 of September 18, 2009. In 2000, then President Jorge Batlle launched the Comisión para la Paz ("Commission for Peace"), whose final report, published in 2003, considered the fate of 38 people "disappeared" in Uruguay and acknowledged the complicity of the State in the commission of human rights abuses.
Beyond the question of truth and recognition, the Gelman verdict broke new ground in terms of paving the way for justice. The ruling obliges the government to continue investigating and excavating in search of María Gelman's remains, and it overrides the main obstacle preventing cases reaching the judiciary — the controversial Ley de Caducidad (Expiry Law).
The Expiry Law was passed in December 1986, almost two years after the return to democracy, and is effectively an amnesty law preventing investigation and prosecution of human rights abuses committed by the military junta during its rule.
The Gelman judgment brands the law "an obstacle to justice", and, noting its "express incompatibility with the American Convention [of Human Rights]", holds that "the provisions of the Expiry Law that impede the investigation and punishment of serious violations of human rights have no legal effect".
For decades human rights groups have campaigned for the law to be annulled; twice the question of revocation has been put to — and rejected by — the population. Firstly in a 1989 referendum and again in a 2009 plebiscite, a majority of voters (by margins of 57.6 to 42.4 per cent and 52.3 to 47.7 per cent respectively) preferred to leave the law untouched.
Political analyst and commentator Oscar Bottinelli says in both cases there was a similar popular feeling at play — a desire to draw a line under the past and move on.
And it's a sentiment still held by many in "post-Gelman" Uruguay, he adds.
"The case definitely served to reactivate discussion about the law," he says.
"I ask people what they think [about the need to investigate and prosecute human rights abuses] and everyone agrees it is important.
"But, looking at it from another angle, most don't see it as the most important issue we face. It ranks about 10th."
Macarena Gelman says she understands the urge to move on from the past but insists the only way to do so is by confronting it.
"To deny there is a need to resolve the situation is ridiculous because we are still having this debate all these years later," she says.
Ariela Peralta, deputy executive director of the Centre for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), litigated the Gelman case and says this was the real success of the lawsuit: "It achieved what the legislature couldn't," ensuring that victims have recourse to the Uruguayan court system in similar cases.
"The Gelman case dramatically changed the dynamic about the discussion of impunity," she says. "Since 1986 we've been going backwards and forwards with this, so it's a very important precedent.
"There are thousands of cases [before the judiciary] now, mostly regarding torture."
Madelon Aguerre of the nongovernmental organisation Peace and Justice Service, says torture is what set Uruguay's military rule apart from other regimes in the region.
"Not so many died in Uruguay compared to other countries, but the level of incarceration was very high and the brutality of the torture was horrific," she says.
"Rape was common — both of women and men — and there were horrible cases of women being tied up and raped by as many as 16 men.
"Some of these cases are being brought now, 30 years later."
According to Aguerre, since 2005 when Mujica's predecessor, Tabaré Vázquez, came to power, there has been "at least some" political will in Uruguay to right the wrongs of the past.
"There has definitely been progress, but there is a long way to go. Some of the things happening now should have happened a long time ago.
"There's a definite before and after. Before there was silence, no one talked, but with Vázquez people began to talk."
And the government began to act too.
Graciela Jorge, executive coordinator of the Commission for Peace Monitoring Department, says her department began excavating to find dirty war victims during Vázquez's mandate.
"We make a great effort to compile all the data and verify the hypotheses of where bodies may be found," she says. "And we've had some very good results.
"The government is now in daily contact with the judiciary, with whom all of the department's information is shared."
On March 17, 2012, a week before President Mujica publicly recognised the State's responsibility for the disappearance of María Gelman, authorities found new remains of a person they believe was killed by the military regime.
For Macarena, every such search and discovery is a poignant reminder of her own story.
"It always stirs everything up, it all comes back," she says.
"[For me] there is a search behind the search — to find an inner peace that I don't have."