Néstor Kirchner Argentina’s late former president first became popular by pushing for the repeal of the amnesties and pardons that prior governments had granted to members of the country’s bloody 1976-83 dictatorship. Argentines cheered when the Supreme Court ruled the laws unconstitutional in 2005, and have supported the hundreds of prosecutions for human-rights abuses that have been launched since then.
Just across the River Plate in tiny Uruguay, the Argentines’ cultural cousins have taken the opposite approach. First in 1989 and then again in 2009, they voted in referendums to reject the repeal of the country’s “Expiration Law”, an amnesty for members of the 1973-85 junta. Many Uruguayans pride themselves on being more consensus-minded than their confrontational Argentine neighbours, and credit the law with cementing the country’s peaceful transition to democratic rule. Moreover, because the law is riddled with loopholes—it permits prosecution of forced adoptions of political prisoners’ children and of crimes committed abroad (a category that includes the vast majority of kidnappings)—many of the era’s worst offenders, including two former de facto presidents, have already been convicted.
Nonetheless, the law is now coming under fire both in the country’s Congress and its Supreme Court. Its critics, mainly from the ruling centre-left Broad Front coalition, argue that it violates Uruguay’s obligations under international human-rights treaties, and that it has prevented the prosecution of torture. Despite losing last year’s referendum, they were emboldened when José Mujica, a former guerrilla leader and political prisoner, became the country’s president in March. Spurred by the vocal support of Mr Mujica’s foreign minister, Luis Almagro, the Broad Front passed a bill in the lower house of Congress on October 20th that would effectively nullify the Expiry Law by establishing a constitutional right to investigate crimes against humanity.
There are also legal objections to the Expiration Law. As an extra safeguard against digging up the past, it prevented prosecutions of the dictatorship’s human-rights abuses from proceeding without presidential approval. Many legal scholars see this as a violation of the balance of powers by subordinating the judiciary to the executive. The Supreme Court has found this provision unconstitutional in two cases over the last two years.
The Broad Front’s senators now have the unenviable task of voting on the recently approved bill. Of its 17 senators, three have already come out against it, leaving the coalition two votes short of passing it. Support from the opposition will be hard to come by. Two former presidents from the rival Colorado party, Julio María Sanguinetti and Jorge Battle, have released an open letter criticising the bill. Moreover, the version approved by the lower house could also run into legal obstacles, since it would permit prosecutions of cases that have already been dismissed, violating the constitutional prohibition on “double jeopardy”.
The Broad Front’s decision to press the issue now looks like a big blunder. Forcing the bill through would expose the coalition to charges of flouting the people’s will expressed in last year’s referendum, and would be highly unpopular: a recent poll found that 61% of Uruguayans who expressed an opinion opposed the bill. But failing to pass it would be a demoralizing defeat. Mr Mujica, who inherited leadership of the Broad Front from Tabaré Vázquez, his highly popular predecessor as president, has tried to remove himself from the debate, saying he will support whatever lawmakers decide. That will make his efforts to control his fractious coalition even harder.