Justice in Uruguay comes full circle

When Uruguay goes to the polls tomorrow to choose a new president, this tiny South American country will teach itself, and the world, an important lesson: that burdens of injustice cannot be hidden for long. Or, to the more pragmatic, it will show that it is easier to deliver justice for past atrocities when the culprits are closer to the cemetery than they are to the courts.

Uruguay may look to foreign eyes like an icon for reconciliation and justice. If the polls are right, José "Pepe" Mujica, a former Tupamaro guerrilla leader who was under arrest for 14 years, will be elected president – be it in the first round or a run-off on 29 November. And, at the same time, Uruguayans will vote in a binding referendum to repeal amnesty legislation passed in 1986 to shield human rights abusers during the 1973-85 military dictatorship from prosecution.

The cycle of justice will then be completed to perfection. The Uruguayan congress in February and the supreme court this week ruled that the Ley de Caducidad "full stop" legislation is unconstitutional. And on Thursday Uruguay's last dictator, Gregorio Alvarez, was sentenced to 25 years in jail for his role in the military regime's assaults on political opponents.

Cycles of history, however, are never as nice and round as they initially look.

Two decades ago, the Uruguayan public and its main democratic institutions stood exactly at the opposite corner to where they stand now. The supreme court upheld amnesty legislation in 1988, and the public approved it in a referendum in 1989. Twenty years is nothing, says a famous tango line by Carlos Gardel. But 20 years have been plenty when it comes to changing views on how to tackle the aftermath of the military brutality unleashed on both sides of the wide, brownish waters of the River Plate, in Argentina and Uruguay.

The circle in Argentina is even less perfect. After a landmark, internationally-praised trial of its junta leaders in 1985, its congress backtracked and passed immunity legislation under pressure in 1986-87, while an elected president, Carlos Menem, granted pardons in 1990 to the same people who had been on trial five years earlier. This decade, trials have been re-opened thanks to the quashing by congress of the "full stop" and "due obedience" laws of the 1980s, which were also declared unconstitutional by Argentina's courts. But the cases are proceeding slowly, and the once-almighty dictators and their accomplices are ageing and dying before standing trial.

To Uruguay's credit, developments there seem to be driven by the grassroots. The campaign to quash the amnesty bill included the collection of 300,000 signatures needed in to secure the binding referendum. That alone shows a commitment by the Uruguayan public – or at least a large portion – to the cause. This is not the case in Argentina, where the Kirchner administration's human rights policy enjoyed praise and support from human rights activists but has been largely ignored by the public, whose priorities lie elsewhere.

Time is the justice that examines all offenders. But when it comes to politics, can time also be a cheap medicine for old, stubborn wounds? Late justice might amount to history-making rather than policy-making. The cases of Uruguay and Argentina show left-of-centre governments finding easy ways of preaching to their eager choirs.

The question is whether re-opening those wounds to close them back again in new ways will be as harmless as it seems, or if it might trigger some new, unexpected internal conflicts.

Marcelo García, a journalist in Buenos Aires.