As Obama dithers on changing the backwards and retrograde “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy dealing with gays in the military, South America has zoomed past the United States in new landmark legislation. Just weeks ago Uruguay, a tiny nation of some 3.5 million sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil, lifted a ban on homosexuals joining the armed forces. Historically, homosexuality was defined as a mental illness under Uruguayan law and as such gays were considered unsuitable to serve in the military.
Uruguay’s turnaround is all the more remarkable in light of the South American country’s recent history and the brutal role of the military. During the 1950s Uruguay was gripped with economic stagnation, inflation, and political corruption. As labor unrest mounted, Uruguayan society saw the rise of an urban Marxist guerrilla movement known as the Tupamaros. During the 60s, rebels carried out a number of spectacular actions including kidnappings and jailbreaks of fellow imprisoned insurgents. Seeing themselves as modern-day Robin Hoods, the Tupamaros robbed banks and distributed the money to the poor.
Long before Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, the Nixon administration responded to political chaos in Uruguay by training the South American country’s police in interrogation and torture techniques. Dan Mitrione, a former policeman from Richmond, Indiana and an FBI agent, was sent to Uruguay in 1969 as an advisor to the U.S. Agency for International Development. In Uruguay, Mitrione was affiliated with the Uruguayan police’s Office of Public Safety and instructed his students in how to torture using electrical implements. Mitrione is reported to have said, “The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise moment, for the desire effect.”
As tensions with the Tupamaros escalated the rebels kidnapped Mitrione and tried to use him as a bargaining chip, demanding the release of a large number of prisoners in exchange for the FBI man’s life. When the government refused the Tupamaros murdered Mitrione. The dramatic story was later immortalized by radical director Costa Gavras in his film State of Siege. In the movie, Yves Montand played the role of Philip Michael Santore, modeled after Mitrione.
In the midst of anti-Communist hysteria and its fight against the Tupamaros, the Uruguayan military became intoxicated by its own power and in 1973 took over the government in a coup. Uruguay soon had the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest percentage of political prisoners to the general population [Uruguay would not return to democratic rule until 1985 when jailed Tupamaros received amnesty and got out of jail]. Needless to say, the military was deeply conservative and threatened by gays. The armed forces banned anyone with “open sexual deviations” from attending military academies. In a number of highly publicized cases, the military dishonorably discharged officers for homosexual practices.
Though Uruguay is a rather conservative society, the country has not been immune from social and political changes sweeping through the rest of South America. In 2004, voters elected socialist Tabaré Vazquez of the left Broad Front coalition to the presidency. Three years later, Vazquez made history by signing a congressional bill granting civil unions to same-sex couples who had been living together for at least five years. Under the new law, gay couples were provided with similar rights to those enjoyed by married couples on matters like inheritance, pensions and child custody. The ruling made Uruguay the first Latin American country to legalize civil unions for gays and lesbians.
Though some retired Uruguayan military officers have warned that reversing the ban on gays joining the military will undermine morale and discipline, in general protest has been muted. Perhaps that’s not too surprising when you consider how much political and social attitudes have shifted within the Southern Cone’s military establishment, a point I discuss at considerable length in my new book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008).
When he first came into office, Obama pledged to end “don’t ask don’t tell.” Polls show that many U.S. soldiers are comfortable with the idea of lifting the ban on gays serving in the ranks. Recently however Obama has backpedaled: the White House’s civil rights Web site has watered down the strong language it had used to signal its desire to scrap “don’t ask don’t tell.” When West Point graduate Dan Choi, an Iraq veteran and Arab linguist, was discharged from the military for disclosing that he was gay, the U.S. President failed to utter even a whisper of protest.
If Uruguay, a country which up until fairly recently was run by a repressive, macho and paternalistic military can institute landmark legislation dealing with gays in the military then what is Obama’s problem?