During the country’s dictatorship from 1973 to 1985, Uruguayans suffered under crushing repression, which included the highest rate of political incarceration in the world. In Of Light and Struggle, Debbie Sharnak explores how activists, transnational social movements, and international policymakers collaborated and clashed in response to this era and during the country’s transition back to democratic rule.
At the heart of the book is an examination of how the language and politics of human rights shifted over time as a result of conflict and convergence between local, national, and global dynamics. Sharnak examines the utility and limits of human rights language used by international NGOs, such as Amnesty International, and foreign governments, such as the Carter administration. She does so by exploring tensions between their responses to the dictatorship’s violations and the grassroots struggle for socioeconomic rights as well as new social movements around issues of race, gender, religion, and sexuality in Uruguay. Sharnak exposes how international activists used human rights language to combat repression in foreign countries, how local politicians, unionists, and students articulated more expansive social justice visions, how the military attempted to coopt human rights language for its own purposes, and how broader debates about human rights transformed the fight over citizenship in renewed democratic societies. By exploring the interplay between debates taking place in activists’ living rooms, presidential administrations, and international halls of power, Sharnak uncovers the messy and contingent process through which human rights became a powerful discourse for social change, and thus contributes to a new method for exploring the history of human rights.
By looking at this pivotal period in international history, Of Light and Struggle suggests that discussions around the small country on the Río de la Plata had global implications for the possibilities and constraints of human rights well beyond Uruguay’s shores.