Uruguay March of Silence – May 20

Tens of thousands march in total silence every year to demand news of the resting place of those disappeared in Uruguay's dictatorship.
By Karen A Higgs
Last updated on May 29, 2024
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The Uruguay March of Silence is a solemn event held as both a protest and a memorial. Every year across the nation, hundreds of thousands gather to remember and mourn the victims of the military regime. Karen A Higgs, Guru’Guay founder, joined the marchers in Montevideo and reports on the moving experience of being part of a multitude carrying the portraits of those still missing and demanding truth and justice—without saying a word.

Photo: Santiago Mazzarovich

This article was originally published in the Guru’Guay newsletter on March 25 2024.

This week I attended a silent march. Tens of thousands of people gathered in silence in the centre of Montevideo and in 70 other districts around the country.

As we stood in Centro in the chilly evening, a black-and-white banner unfurled from the top of a seven-storey building to our right. The letters in black written vertically spelled out “PRESENTE”. There were placards lined up around a monument, each bearing a black-and-white photograph of the face of a man or woman—most young enough to be my son’s age. Many of the matchers carried paper daisies or wore clothing with a daisy on it. Each flower had a missing petal.

At 8 pm, those carrying the placards moved to the front. Everybody had been chatting up to that point. Suddenly a silence fell. It’s very moving to be with tens of thousands of people and suddenly everyone is silent. We moved forward in a river of humans down 18 de Julio.

There were so many of us it was going to be physically impossible to make it to Plaza Cagancha where the names of the 197 people who had been detained and disappeared during the Uruguay dictatorship (1973-85) were being read out one by one.

Several marchers turned on their cell phones to share the live transmission. After each name the silence was broken as the crowd murmured “presente”— ‘present’ or ‘here’. It takes a long time to read out the full names of almost 200 people. Almost forty minutes. At the end everyone sang the national anthem, then broke into a solemn round of applause. And then headed home.

Photo: Santiago Mazzarovich

When did the March of Silence in Uruguay started?

The Marcha del Silencio—March of Silence—takes place every May 20. Why that day? Because in 1976, four Uruguayans were found murdered in Argentina (they included elected representatives of today’s ruling party and the opposition).

The first march was called by the families of the disappeared in 1996. More than ten years had passed since the end of the dictatorship. Despite that, the families were finding it impossible to meet with authorities and find out what had happened to their loved ones. They were not received by presidents Julio Sanguinetti (Colorado party 1985-1990 y 1995-2000), nor Luis Lacalle Herrera (Nacional party 1990-1995) father of today’s president.

It was only in 2000 that the government officially recognised their omission and created a peace commission. In 2005 under the first Frente Amplio government (centre-left coalition which ruled for three periods, 2006-2020) the search for human remains on Uruguayan territory finally began—though not with the vigour that you might expect.

Still a sensitive issue

There’s always been what has been referred to as a ‘pact of silence’ by the military not to divulge information. A search of military sites with no collaboration is of course the proverbial search for the needle in a haystack. To date only six bodies have been recovered.

If there’s one thing that I’ve come to see clearly over my years in Uruguay, it is that history is complex. Indeed, life is complex. The history around the dictatorship in Uruguay is not black and white. For instance:

  • The dictatorship itself was not solely a military coup. An elected leader declared the state of emergency in 1972 that opened the door to what is known here as a civic-military dictatorship. And that leader was from the same Colorado party that eventually created the commission for peace in 2000. Similarly:
  • Not all the military were “bad guys”. There were generals who were against the coup and ended up in jail and tortured.

This deserves much more detail and that’s not my idea today.

I wanted to share my experience this week with you—it was very moving—and as always to provide you with some ‘insider’ perspective. As I always say, no country is perfect. This is just another example

And one more thing.

The dictatorship continues to be a sensitive chapter in the relatively recent past. However the two (opposed) political parties reacted this way this week. The Frente Amplio—the formal opposition—declared that crimes against humanity “will not go without impunity”. Meanwhile, the Nacional Party (the leading party of the ruling centre-right coalition), reaffirmed its commitment to “memory, truth and justice” and expressed its solidarity with the families of the disappeared. On the main balcony of its headquarters, just up the street from where I live, they unfurled a banner which said: “State terrorism never again”.

Would you like to receive information about Uruguay to your email box? Receive the Guru’Guay newsletter twice a month free of charge by signing up at the link.  Archives also available on the same page. The newsletter goes out two Saturdays per month.

Huge thanks to photographer Santiago Mazzarovich for allowing us to share his photographs in this article. More here.

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