From Guantanamo to Montevideo and on to Havana

The arrival of Guantanamo detainees in Uruguay boosted Mujica’s reputation and put Cuba back on the regional agenda.

Two former prisoners at Guantanamo Bay stand on a balcony decorated with Uruguay's flag in Montevideo [AP]

The six Guantanamo detainees who landed in Montevideo after 12 years in prison without charge have now been resettled in Uruguay as refugees. They were given a provisional house, provided by the national workers syndicate. They can now bring their families to the country and are free to move wherever they want.

According to their lawyers, they want to open a restaurant and just drink mate again as they used to in Syria. The local press suggests that they will move to Chuy, the little town on the border with Brazil home of the small Arab Muslim community of Uruguay. Uruguayan authorities hope they will quickly integrate into society, follow their dreams as free men and come to represent a success story for reintegration of terror suspects into society.

Uruguay already has experience reintegrating political detainees; leftist guerrillas who spent years in jail during the military dictatorship era have been successfully rehabilitated, former guerrilla and current Uruguayan President Jose Mujica being a good example of this.

Although he received strong criticism for his decision to take in the Guantanamo detainees, Mujica pressed forward with it. The move was aimed not only to boost his international reputation as a humanitarian, but also to attract Washington’s attention on another issue: Cuba’s continuing isolation.

Cuba’s unilateral release of American aid worker Alan Gross soon after the detainees arrived in Montevideo might not be a coincidence. 

Reinforcing Mujica international fame

The news of the Guantanamo detainees’ arrival to Uruguay received impressive coverage in international media.

Uruguay is the second Latin American country to accept Guantanamo detainees; the first one was El Salvador, which welcomed two Chinese nationals in 2012.

Guantanamo ex-inmates start fresh in Uruguay

The fact that there have been only two countries in Latin America accepting Guantanamo inmates is already particularly extraordinary, given US historical ascendancy on the region. Even US’ main allies in the region, Chile and Colombia, rejected US proposals to accept prisoners from Guantanamo, considering the move highly unpopular.

Perhaps the spotlight fell on Uruguay as a Guantanamo detainee host because of Mujica’s own media popularity over his unusually humble way of life as a world leader, and his progressive public speeches and political agenda.

He also managed to get a lot of media attention over the arrival of around forty Syrian refugees in October, although they were few in number compared to the thousands of refugees that neighbouring countries such as Brazil and Argentina have been accepting.

The day the detainees landed in Montevideo, Mujica sent an open letter to Uruguayans and Barack Obama. The first sentence reads, “Solidarity is the tenderness of the people”, a quote from Pablo Neruda referring to the 1939 exodus of Spanish Republicans escaping fascism to South America.

Neruda’s words well reflect the main humanitarian goal of the operation, which aims to to reinforce the image of Uruguay as a peacemaker and international reference for humanitarian issues. “Pepe” has the aspiration, before ceding power to Tabare Vazquez at the beginning of 2015, to spread his humanitarian legacy and reinforce his world reputation. Through the well-publicised gesture, Mujica aims to give hope to all those disenchanted people who still think that idealism and ethics in politics are still possible.

Cuba back on the agenda

From a political perspective, Mujica’s usual anti-imperialist stance left many in Uruguay astonished that he was willing to do a “favour” to Obama and accept the Guantanamo detainees. It is only in the second part of his open letter that his political goals become apparent.

Empire – The US and Cuba: Obsession

Mujica asks, as a gesture of reconciliation for all the American people, for the release of a 70 years-old Puerto Rican independence fighter, along with three Cuban detainees who are part of the group known as the Cuban Five, and whose controversial detention in the late 1990s led to a worldwide campaign for their release.

He also asks for the lifting of the “unjust embargo” imposed on “our sister” Cuba.

Mujica’s plea is reflective of an emerging regional bloc different than the usual “left-leaning” one. It is instead a heterogeneous regional political bloc able to come to terms with ideological differences and to find common ground for regional coexistence in the name of progress.

Best example of this is the ongoing peace talks between FARC and the Colombian government in Cuba, with the participation of Chile and Venezuela.

Mujica’s move, therefore, is not unprecedented. Back in 2009 the late Hugo Chavez hinted at the possibility of accepting Guantanamo detainees in Venezuela and at raising the issue of Cuba’s isoluation. Cuba’s reintegration into regional life, after decades of US ostracism, represents the main political goal of the bloc and of Mujica humanitarian operation.

Therefore, it is not surprise that Jose Miguel Insulza, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) publicly lauded Mujica’s move. Although leftist American governments have been particularly at odds with the Washington-based regional organisation, as consequence of the informal exclusion of Cuba under US pressure, Insulza has been working hard to reverse it. Just recently, he said that he hoped both Cuba and the US would attend the next OAS summit planned for April in Panama City.

The US is unlikely to release the Cuban political prisoners, but Cuba’s unilateral release of Alan Gross after 5 years could be part of a larger swap following Mujica’s move.

The six Guantanamo detainees will probably be the last ones to be resettled in the region. But their landing in Montevideo made it clear that Latin America is not, and will not be again the US backyard. 

Massimo Di Ricco is Lecturer at the Universidad del Norte in Barranquilla (Colombia) and is currently a research fellow at the University of Tarragona (Spain). He is contributing to several publications on the Middle East, Latin America and global politics.