319. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • President Carter/President Mendez Bilateral



    • President Aparicio Mendez President of Uruguay
    • Enrique Delfante Sub-Secretary of Foreign Ministry
    • Ambassador Jose Perez Caldas
  • US

    • President Carter
    • Secretary Vance
    • Assistant Secretary Todman
    • David Aaron, National Security Council
    • Ambassador Pezzullo
    • Robert Pastor, NSC

Human Rights

President Carter opened by offering two books to President Mendez. One was the book he authored, Why Not the Best, and the other a volume of satellite photographs of a type useful for agricultural planning.

President Carter said he was grateful that President Mendez could come to assist in the signing of the historic Panama Canal Treaty. He indicated that the attendance of the Chiefs of State from the hemisphere was of value to us and that he appreciated President Mendez’ agreeing to make this trip. The President then indicated that he would like to speak frankly regarding the difficulties and differences we have in our bilateral relationship.

Mendez said he appreciated a frank discussion because it was the language he understood best.

President Carter indicated that the problem of human rights has arisen as an obstacle between our two countries. He said there was a growing awareness among Latin American countries that positive changes must be made to insure that human rights are protected. Turning to Uruguay the President noted that many allegations have been made about violations of human rights which probably are exaggerated because they come from families which are personally involved [Page 905] and from a tendency in the press to give emphasis to negative factors. As a result, there is a widespread feeling in our country that human rights are not adequately protected in Uruguay, and that people are imprisoned without cause and suffer delayed trials. In light of these allegations it is difficult for the President, given the concerns of the Congress, to maintain a close relationship with Uruguay. The President said he would appreciate the views of President Mendez as to what actions Uruguay could take to help clarify this perhaps unfair international image. He added that what he sought was not meant as criticism but was asked in the spirit of seeking ways to remove this obstacle to our traditionally close relations.2

President Mendez said he understood clearly what the President was seeking. He reiterated that he appreciated the President’s frankness and that he would attempt to give him a full explanation. Mendez then explained that the Uruguayan Government had been the victim of a campaign of defamation which was well organized and well financed, and which was making common cause with the criminals and seditious elements attacking his country. He said that, if the current government had not taken control, Uruguay today would be a communist country or a paradise for terrorists. President Mendez further explained that the current government did not have the resources to fight this campaign of calumny. It believed instead that its actions would of themselves speak positively for them. He indicated that he was a man committed to the law; one who had taught administrative law for 25 years before he was expelled from his position by the extremist forces that sought to dominate his country. He said he was a democrat by tradition who could not conceive of a country without democracy and of a man without freedom. He said he had felt a deep-seated sadness when he visited the Senate the day before because a parliament was not flourishing in his country currently. But he is gladdened by the hope that the country will soon realize the conditions to permit a return to a democratic form. Unfortunately, he lamented, Uruguay’s enemies do not permit the return to an open democratic form at the present time, but he was confident that the day would soon come when that was possible.

[Page 906]

Political Prisoners

Turning to the human rights issue more specifically, President Mendez said unequivocably that there were no political prisoners being held in Uruguayan jails.3 Instead, there are approximately 2,000 detained who are either delinquents or terrorists and who are either under judicial processing or have been sentenced. All of those detained, he assured, had received all the protection of due process. Additionally, under special security measures granted by the last parliamentary government, 190 individuals were in custody. He explained the 190 figure might be halved at the current moment because the policy was to free those immediately who were not found guilty of any infractions.

Mendez said further that when he became President he vowed that the number of prisoners held under special security measures would be reduced. And he was pleased that the current number is relatively insignificant and will be further reduced. He promised to remove the special security authority, possibly by the end of this year. He noted that under these measures habeas corpus was waived and people could be detained without notice for more than 24 hours. He justified the use of the special security measures as a means of combatting terrorists who work as teams and who would be forewarned if information that their members taken prisoner was made public within 24 hours as required under normal conditions. But he stated categorically that there were no cases of torture or mistreatment, adding for emphasis that he checked personally to ensure that mistreatment did not occur.

He spoke of the recent arrest of a Brazilian journalist (Tavares) who was captured in flagrant violation of espionage laws.4 Within 48 hours the international press was claiming that the prisoner had been tortured and mistreated, that he had not been fed and that he was very sick and had been denied medical treatment. The press also claimed that the prisoner had lost half of his weight and was dying. To answer these charges the Uruguayan Government invited the Brazilian Consul to visit the prisoner with a private doctor. The interview was then published in the press. The prisoner stated publicly that he had not [Page 907] been physically abused and that he had been treated for an old asthma condition in a very proper way.

President Mendez then gave the following figures of prisoners who had been released from prison through July 30 of this year: 1,121 had been freed; 197 had been granted early release before their terms had been completed; and 14 foreigners had been expelled under the provisions of a 1924 law. President Mendez then complained that the Uruguayan penal system was old and in need of revision. But he indicated that their scruples were so high that they have built a new model jail for those held on terrorist charges which was better than the one housing common criminals. He said that the government of Uruguay had invited the diplomatic corps to visit the prison and that all had done so except for the USSR. (Note: our Ambassador did not visit the prison although our military attache did.) President Mendez then went on to say that it is true that their trial process is slow but this stems from causes that go back to the last century. He indicated that two new projects were under study to revise the court system. He said the government preferred a careful and slow study to insure that security is not jeopardized.

He indicated that the only terrorists who have died were those killed in direct combat with security forces. He added that terrorists who had surrendered had been treated with respect. As an example, he pointed to the case of Tupamaro leader Sendic who was shot in the mouth when apprehended and was given very costly surgical and medical care. According to President Mendez, Sendic has recovered his voice and received extensive plastic surgery to return his facial features to normal. He added that the proof that the Government of Uruguay respected human rights was the fact that 2,000 prisoners are in jail. He indicated that there was a simple way to have avoided the problem but that the Government of Uruguay does not engage in that type of behavior. He said, “We now pay the price because we have these prisoners.”

President Mendez assured that if there is a charge made against any official for violating the rights of an individual, “I personally would assure that action was taken.” He added for emphasis that if we became aware that such violations were being committed behind his back he would submit his resignation immediately. Mendez then recounted a case of mistreating a prisoner who had died. The investigation showed that abuses had been committed. As a result, the policeman and the inspector of police were dismissed”.

Need For GOU Positive Action

President Carter indicated that he appreciated President Mendez’ words. He added that President Mendez must realize that the initiative [Page 908] for answering the allegations made against the Uruguayan Government must come from the Uruguayan Government. He then asked what President Mendez would advocate or recommend to facilitate the release of facts to the public to begin a positive program of improving Uruguay’s image. He said it was important that the information deal with specifics that would demonstrate clearly that progress was being made.

President Mendez said he wanted to bring to the attention of President Carter that the government of Uruguay has just sent an extensive reply to queries raised by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC). He indicated that it would be most helpful if that document could be released and thus help clarify the record. He added that it would appear logical for a commission of some sort to assess conditions in Uruguay. The Government of Uruguay did not offer an invitation to the IAHRC because we know that individuals in the IAHRC had already condemned us before they began the survey. We know that it has become a highly politicized commission that does not earn any one’s respect. It has taken testimony from common delinquents, assassins and criminals. Rather than deal with the IAHRC, Mendez offered instead an open invitation to the President to send any person or groups of significance in the United States to Uruguay.5 He said the Government of Uruguay would open its doors to such visitors and offer complete freedom of movement and the freedom to meet and talk with any one they wished. He said he had already invited two U.S. Senators to make such a visit (Mendez did invite Senator Griffin at the SFRC luncheon yesterday). He assured that any visitor would be free to visit the jails, the courts and to talk with any one. He then commended the President for having selected a man of Todman’s talent and intelligence to serve as Assistant Secretary of Inter-American Affairs, and added that he also has made an excellent choice in the Ambassador sent to Uruguay. He indicated that with this level of quality among US officials dealing with Uruguay, he was optimistic that the troubles between our two nations would soon disappear. Mendez then noted that the government of Uruguay did not have the funds to mount a counter campaign against the international campaign of calumny as it would much rather use its resources for schools and roads. He indicated that however, it would organize a new information [Page 909] commission to give prompt and responsive answers to anyone who requested information about prisoners. He indicated that currently information offices were scattered throughout the government and were not offering comprehensive and prompt answers to those seeking information. He emphasized the most important thing now is to “establish our credibility.”

President Carter said he was most pleased that they had had a general discussion on this issue and asked President Mendez to communicate with him at any time either directly or through our Ambassador if he ever felt the need to do so. He said it had been an honor to have President Mendez here and added that continuing evidence was needed that the allegations about violations of human rights in Uruguay were being answered thoroughly and convincingly. He added that he looked to President Mendez’ leadership to bring about improvement in its area of human rights.

President Mendez noted that he personally was racing the clock (a reference to his advanced age). He added that he did not want to do anything which would deprive him of having his comfort and rest.

Export Subsidies and Countervailing Duties

He then said he would like to touch on one other issue, perhaps a minor issue for the United States, but one of major importance to Uruguay. He indicated that Uruguay was recuperating economically at a rapid pace. He said that they had reestablished their international credit, had built up reserves, had improved their trade balance and had doubled their level of exports. A great deal of attention was being given to nontraditional exports, especially because they were job-intensive industries and offered interesting prospects in that area. He mentioned that leather goods was the case in point. The Government had used a rebate system not so much as a subsidy, but to encourage these industries which needed an initial push to develop. Last year the rebate had been cut by 20%, and gradually it will be reduced further. He indicated that if U.S. markets were closed to these leather products, several new factories would be closed and 12,000 employees would lose their jobs. He realized this was not a large number in the U.S., but very significant for a small nation like Uruguay. He added that in the commission Uruguay would send to the U.S. to study the problem, an official from the Minister of Foreign Relations would be included. He said he wanted to bring this to President Carter’s attention and to ask that the President ensure that the final decision be a “fair one.”

President Carter responded that “any item that is important to Uruguay is important to us as well.” He indicated that we have a problem with any product that is subsidized by a government. He assured that “We look forward to working with your government [Page 910] through the MTN.” He suggested to President Mendez that “you can announce when you return to Uruguay that I have agreed to expedite consultations with your government because the subsidies have been removed.” Mendez then clarified that they had not been removed but rather reduced and in the process of being removed. Mendez closed the discussion by asking if he could have an autographed picture of the President. President Carter said he would be glad to provide one, and will also autograph the picture that was taken the night before at the State dinner.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, North/South, Pastor, Country Files, Box 46, Uruguay, 1/77-10/80. Confidential. Drafted by Pezzullo. The meeting took place in the White House Cabinet Room.
  2. In a September 19 letter to Derian, Pezzullo wrote: “Mendez came away very impressed that President Carter had asked him to take the steps to prove to the world that the allegations made against Uruguay were exaggerated. I believe he feared that President Carter would read the riot act. He was pleasantly surprised to find the President to be reasonable and pragmatic. The end result is euphoria here. They recognize—and I keep insisting—that the ball is in their court.” (National Archives, RG 59, Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, 1976–1977 Human Rights Subject Files and Country Files, Lot 80D177, Uruguay—July-December 1977)
  3. Carter noted in his diary that in this meeting Mendez was “highly defensive, denied there were any political prisoners in Uruguay. Our information is that they have between two thousand and five thousand.” (White House Diary, p. 95)
  4. Flavio Tavares, a correspondent for the Mexican newspaper Excelsior, was arrested in Montevideo in July. (Telegram 170768 to Montevideo, July 21; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770260-0781; telegram 169483 to Buenos Aires, July 20; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770258-0516; and telegram 2869 from Montevideo, July 27; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770269-0366)
  5. In telegram 4446 from Montevideo, September 15, Pezzullo recommended: “We should follow up quickly on the offer made by President Mendez to the President to welcome any individuals or groups he would suggest visit here, in lieu of visit by the IAHRC.” Pezzullo suggested “a two-phased approach” consisting of, first, “the visit of a prominent and objective person,” and second, “a Codel from the House headed by Don Fraser to visit here early next year.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770336-0063)