On October 24, 2013, Ambassador Milton Romani Gerner received the WOLA Human Rights Award for his dedicated work in Uruguay and the international community to pioneer new approaches to drug policy.
Ambassador Milton Romani Gerner is Uruguay’s Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States (OAS), whose commitment to promoting human rights in Uruguay during the years of military dictatorship and the restoration of democracy, and whose pioneering work to promote a human rights-oriented drug policy in Uruguay and internationally reflects Uruguay’s own commitment to social justice and human rights.
This is the speech that he gave that night.
“I beg your pardon, but I am going to speak in Uruguayan, which is an interesting variety of Spanish or really, of the Castilian. Uruguayan slang is a mixture of Rio de la Plata slang, very different to Buenos Aires slang, and some terms of the Italian, Portuguese and Guarani. Taa? ….. This is a typical Uruguayan expression. It Means OK. It happens that, the feelings that I have in this particular moment with the honor to share with you and my family, can only be expressed in Uruguayo.
Etymologically, “Award” is a “decision after consideration.” That is better than the word for it in Spanish, “Prize,” which means “reward for merits or services provided.” It surprises me that the Anglo-Saxon is more philosophical and the Spanish is more pragmatic. I searched for this etymological root, to explain to myself why I deserve a prize or an award. As a psychologist, I also think this going around in circles is a rationalization and defense mechanism to hide the deep emotions that this moment brings.
My daughter Djamila and my son Yamandú came all the way from Uruguay, together with my older granddaughters Delmira and Luna. The younger ones, Anatole, Violeta and Leon stayed in Montevideo with our family. Here is Sonia, my wife and partner in so many moments. Among you, there dear friends, my colleagues from the Mission of Uruguay, and companions or “compañeros”— meaning those who “share the bread” in this meal of “humans for rights.” In addition, of all of those who will become my friends in this memorable night.
This award, that I accept with great joy, is recognition of a personal effort that has a collective meaning. I’m not being modest; I accept this award in the name of many, including some that are not with us anymore. Because the defense and the struggle for human rights is by nature and objective, a part of humanity.
There is an ethical moment when an individual says: “I’m involved,” or like Spanish singer Serrat says: “between these guys and me, there is something personal.” But real history is moved by groups of humans in solidarity. This is a fundamental focus in an era when the so-called end of ideologies has drowned us in a false consumer individualism. Inequality is a lifestyle, saying “you are what you’re worth,” “do as you please,” and also “what is my take?” meaning what is my bribery. Our prisons are filled with the poor, the sick, and black people. Because, a drug consumer—and we all know it—is a matter of health. But prestigious banks that launder money pay fines. That is inequality.
Some of you might know me for my preaching to strengthen a difficult marriage: drugs and human rights. For nine years, I’ve been working in different aspects of the complex drug problem. I was the Secretary General of the National Drug Board, appointed by first president of the left in Uruguay, Dr. Tabaré Vásquez and kept in office by José Mujica, with whom I shared other times. We advocated and set the basis for a new drug policy and we started at the international level (starting in Vienna, but in all of America as well) demanding the opening for a debate—which is the first democratic right of a state and allows the community to decide. The goal was to break the prohibitionist paradigm in one of its essential points: the moralist and puritanical approach that denies the possibility of debate. The effort involved heretical phrases that couldn’t be said, such as “harm reduction” and “risk management.” Absurd.
The goal is to guarantee the preeminence of human rights as international law, over the system of drug control. To end at last the catastrophe that is the war on drugs, which causes more damage than it pretends to eliminate. It turns out there is a convenient myopia—because in the south we pay with deaths to stop cocaine trafficking, but in the consumer north, the business earnings stay, and the liberalization and legalization of weapons is vigorous. I can assure you that guns harm at least as much as drugs.
I feel very pleased with the Organization of American States’ report on drugs, to which we contributed, and with the political dialogue that opened after the “Declaration of Antigua” in Guatemala. In the context of comprehensive and wide-ranging education, health, and development proposals related to drug policy, Uruguay is walking the path towards a regulated market for cannabis. Just like two states are doing in the United States: Colorado and Washington. It is an alternative experience to the current form of regulation that works, badly, through interdiction, the penal law enforcement, and repression.
But allow me to share another facet of the story. It comes from long ago. “Seventeen again,” sings Mercedes Sosa and Violeta Parra. At that age, together with other young revolutionaries we wanted to be a part of Che’s epic. Yes, we were determined to join that struggle. We were students, rebellious and restless.
On the side of power, which was increasingly authoritarian, we encountered the most brutal repression. One night they murdered two students on the street, my classmates. Locked in and surrounded in the University, with thousands of injured around me, I decided to join the armed struggle. Like our President Mujica, and many others, we walked that path. He, like ten thousand compatriots, were jailed and tortured. With the coup and at the age of 23 years, and with Djamila as a newborn, we fled like many others to Argentina (Yamandú was born an Argentinean). Three years later in Argentina, Videla´s military coup. A cruel prosecution began. Illustrious legislators were murdered: Zelmar Michelini and Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz, together with “Tupamaros” Rosario Barredo and William Whitelaw Blanco, and teacher Telba Juárez. Operation Condor began against all opponents, including the political party I belong to—the party of the Frente Amplio—that has 30 men and women missing, including several boys and girls that we are still looking for, others that we found. Today we have here Mariana, Anatole, Victoria, Simon, and Amaral.
It was a time when all Uruguayans met the courage, the solidarity of WOLA. Jo-Marie Griesgraber was part of the first humanitarian delegation that came to Uruguay. We became friends, just like with Joe, at a distance. I met her through the secret messages that came to Buenos Aires, where we stayed despite killings and disappearances. WOLA supported Zelmar, Wilson, and Juan Raúl Ferreira, an
d many more, when they testified before the U.S. Congress, establishing a link with the great man that was Congressman Edward Koch.
One day we met a group of mothers that met in Santa Cruz Church and that walked every Thursday—and still do—in the Plaza de Mayo. We met the grandmothers. Also the beloved Emilio Fermín Mignone and Augusto Conte, Alicia de Oliveira and Noemí Labrune, Carmen Lapacó. Together with a few of Uruguayan survivors like Alberto Correa, Rosina Harley, Mónica Parada, Octavio Carsen, el Negro Betancour, Aníbal Collazo, Lelia González, we met, participated and learned a lot in the CELS (Center for Legal and Social Studies in Argentina). It was a learning experience.
The Latin American left hadn’t incorporated—and some are still stubborn and don’t get it—this facet of the fundamental democratic struggle for human rights. In the face of horror, as all of humanity we learned to affirm a new ethical and political dimension: solidarity. It was the defense of life and liberty against the terror that owned our countries and that used all state apparatus to kidnap and disappear. It tried to impregnate fear in all of society. A lethal cancer that carried on into the democratic restoration in the regime of impunity, and that we reversed, but still remains. Because democracy is the government of the people, with trust and without fear in peaceful coexistence. Getting to know all the truth and bringing justice. It’s impossible to think of human development without these pillars.
After the Shoa, which means “Catastrophe,” humanity stopped and pretended to create measures for a “never again.” However, shoas keep repeating periodically, and maybe we have to “Be Alert,” just as a sign read at the Mauthausen concentration camp. But “Be alert” that it never happens again. It is an inherent ethic. It is a cultural challenge, but it is also political, legal, and humanitarian.
Judging those responsible is not an act of vindication embodied in each torturer. Even if the tortured is vindicated. It is a symbolic restoration of our humanity. The challenge is—as affirmed by Bruno Bettelheim, who was a Dachau survivor and felt despair when he came to the United States because nobody wanted to see what was happening in the concentration camps—to ensure the triumph of the pulse of life against the pulse of death.
Dear friends, be assured that this award—I am sure for Tom Harkin and Marcela Turati also—is a great incentive to continue in this noble struggle for peace and in confronting the most important challenge that Latin America has today, which is finding alternative and humane drug policies.”