Why did Uruguay agree to take in Guantánamo Bay detainees?

President Mujica said he would give refuge to five detainees from the controversial US detention camp. Uruguay may have foreign policy interests in scoring points with the US.

Matilde Campodonico/AP
Uruguay's President Jose Mujica pauses during an interview at his home on the outskirts of Montevideo, Uruguay in May 2014.

In recent years, small Uruguay has seized a large slice of the region’s attention. Foreign reporters clamor to interview President José Mujica at his austere farmhouse. International observers scrutinize his social reforms, including a ground-breaking marijuana legalization law. And now President Mujica, a former guerrilla, is turning heads by offering to take in Guantánamo Bay detainees.
 
Mujica has agreed to give refuge to five detainees, something that would make Uruguay the first country in South America to do so, should the United States accept the gesture.

“It’s a disgrace,” Mujica said of the detention camp recently, insisting Uruguay must assume responsibility in helping shut Guantánamo. “I’m doing this for humanity.”
 
Activists say the offer is crucial to global efforts to help the Obama administration end what is regarded by many as a human rights scandal. But some view the move as largely political: a perpetuation of Uruguay’s historic strategy of cozying up to the US to counteract the muscle of its giant neighbors.
 
“Uruguay has always sought the US as a big brother to maintain Argentina and Brazil at bay,” says Jay Knarr, author of a book about US-Uruguay relations. “Its policymakers are very astute to the need to keep the US happy.”

‘Importing’ problems?

The offer has drawn criticism at home, however. Some 47 percent of Uruguayans said last month that they disapproved of giving the detainees refuge, according to a public opinion poll. Only 23 percent approved.
 
“We have enough problems here without importing those of others,” said one opposition senator, who hopes to run in presidential elections later this year. 

Guantánamo, which is located on a US naval base in Cuba, has held 779 detainees since 2002, according to the Guantánamo Docket, which tracks the prison’s population. President Obama promised to shut the facility when he came to office in 2009, but the effort stagnated. Amid widespread criticism, Obama reaffirmed the pledge a year ago and sent a new State Department envoy to expedite the release of detainees. But 154 remain.
 
Twelve of the detainees need to be resettled in a third country because it is unsafe to send them home, according to Polly Rossdale at Reprieve, an organization in London that provides legal support to 13 detainees and has helped to resettle more than 60 others.
 
In a high-profile case in 2009, two detainees whose lives would have been in danger had they returned home to China were nearly resettled in northern Virginia. But the move was stymied by the US Congress, which has since blocked the transfer of detainees to the US.

Since then, “it’s incredibly difficult to get a third country to accept a detainee,” says Michael Mone Jr., a lawyer in Boston who represents a Syrian prisoner, Ali Al Shaaban, who is rumored to be one of the five who would head to Uruguay.
 
Mr. Mone successfully relocated an Uzbek detainee to Ireland in 2009, but not without a prolonged fight. He reached out unsuccessfully to several nations, and to human rights organizations in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. “Even though countries were willing to criticize the Bush administration for the obscenity of Guantánamo, the problem was that none would stick its neck out and take a detainee when the US was not willing to do the same,” he says. 

‘A liberal bastion’

Mujica’s offer consolidates Uruguay’s reputation as a liberal and open nation, analysts say.

“Uruguay has always tried to stand out as a liberal bastion,” says Julio Burdman, a professor of international relations and geopolitics in Buenos Aires. This includes the century-long separation between the state and the Catholic Church; the oldest mandatory pension system in Latin America; and recent laws that legalized gay marriage and abortion. “[Uruguay] has the values to play this card,” Mr. Burdman says.
 
A country of around 3.4 million people, Uruguay also has a long tradition of offering asylum. It gave refuge to Argentines who fled political conflict there several decades ago, and in 1999 the US transferred 12 Cuban prisoners held at the naval base in Guantánamo to Uruguay. The State Department website highlights Uruguay’s role as a “consensus builder and mediator in international contexts.”
 
While George W. Bush was demonized by late former leaders Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, and Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, then-President Bush visited Uruguay in 2007, taking a boat ride with then-President Tabaré Vázquez.

Uruguay originally courted the US to overcome its neo-colonial economic relationship with the British. It also sought to distance itself from neighboring Argentina and Brazil, whose battles for territory gave birth to the country. After independence, Brazil and Argentina continued to intervene in Uruguay. Today, there is a underlying “fear of latent tendencies,” says Mr. Knarr, reflected by Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s controversial claim recently that Uruguay’s founding father wanted, in fact, to be Argentine.
 
Some interpret Mujica’s offer as astute geopolitics. “It will score points with the US,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy group in Washington. However, Mujica is pushing for concessions.
 
After reportedly speaking with Cuban President Raúl Castro, Mujica asked the US to free Cuban prisoners – a reference, most likely, to three intelligence agents – in exchange for the detainees. He has also shunned a two-year restriction on international travel that Washington wants to impose on the detainees. “There’s no basis for subjecting them to internal controls,” says Miguel Langón, a professor of criminal law in Montevideo. “They have not broken any laws here.”

A prisoner’s past

Beyond international politicking, there’s a sense that Mujica’s turbulent personal past may also play a part in his offer to take the detainees. Mujica was a political prisoner for 14 years after being captured in 1972 for working with the Tupamaros, a violent urban guerrilla movement. He spent more than a decade in solitary confinement.

“They are a human wreck; they’re physically and mentally destroyed because of what they’ve been through,” Mujica said of the detainees in a recent interview with the Associated Press.

“I think he gets it,” says Mone, the Boston lawyer, referring to Mujica's empathy for those who have spent time in Guantánamo. “I think he understands.”

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