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Guantánamo detainees balk at conditions in Uruguay

When then-Uruguayan President Jose Mujica offered to take in former detainees from the Guantánamo Bay prison last year, much of the world applauded.

After all, some detainees long cleared for release had nowhere to go, and finally here was a big-hearted Western leader with a win-win plan for a world-class problem.

Point for “Pepe” Mujica, the Tupamaro guerrilla turned pauper-president, with a reputation for telling truth to power and having an insurgent’s eye for a public-relations strike. Now his compatriots appear to be having second thoughts. Four of the six refugees — three Syrians and one Tunisian — have been camping out in protest since April 24 on the lawn in front of the U.S. embassy in Montevideo.

They are out of work and unhappy with their lodging (“We walked out of one prison to enter another one,” one of them said), and only one of them has agreed to the official terms of asylum: In return for seeking work, studying Spanish and agreeing to enroll their children in public schools, they have their freedom and receive $600 month and guaranteed shelter for a year.

A labor union assisting them reported that they had declined job offers, and recently Foreign Minister Rodolfo Nin Novoa delivered a quiet ultimatum: Sign on the dotted line or forfeit their shelter and refugee stipend.

The refugees have started a website to press their case, complaining that the United Nations Refugee Agency had cut off aid, although the U.N. has pledged to help locate the men’s families and resettle them in Uruguay. They said they were promised at least three years of aid, though a government spokesperson attributed that “misunderstanding” to a translation error.

The protestors sprawled in front of the U.S. Embassy have vowed to strike their camp only after the American ambassador meets with them. “They can’t just throw (their) mistakes on others, they should help us with houses and financial support,” they blogged. The U.S. Embassy has declined to comment.

This is a turnabout. When they arrived last December, the former prisoners were the toast of Montevideo. They posed for pictures “like rock stars,” one story had it, and gushed with gratitude over the generosity of their new hosts. Uruguayan media returned the compliment with flattering portraits of their new guests (who also loved soccer), sipping hot mate tea and striving to learn Spanish.

“In keeping with our best history, we offered our hospitality to those who have suffered a terrible privation of liberty in Guantánamo,” Mujica declared in an open letter to Uruguayans last year. Only hidebound conservatives, with their “rotten souls and cowardice,” were opposed to welcoming the refugees, he said.

This was sincere but also part of a Uruguayan set piece. An economic flyweight, with half the population of Hong Kong, Uruguay has long punched above its diplomatic weight. “The only power we have had is through humanitarian gestures,” Bernardo Sorj, a political scientist, told me, recalling that Uruguay was the first country to call the slaughter of Armenians in 1915 genocide. Embracing a handful of the world’s human jetsam seemed a logical — and low-risk — segue for Mujica, the leader who legalized gay marriage, abortion and the sale of marijuana.

Uruguayans were less sure: Last September, 58 percent of them said they were unenthusiastic about the arrival of former Guantánamo detainees. Tabare Vazquez, Mujica’s successor, has since tabled plans to take in a second group of Syrian civil-war refugees and called on the United States to help resettle the Guantánamo prisoners. Foreign Minister Novoa even offered to help draft a letter of demands to the Americans, the Associated Press reported.

After paying a recent visit to the refugees in Montevideo, even Mujica, now a senator, sounded frustrated. “They sent me not one farmer,” he groused, remarking on their soft “middle-class hands” and apparent lack of the grit that Uruguay’s immigrant ancestors brought with them from the Old World.

This is a more-familiar refrain in Latin America, where deflecting problems is as tempting as a sizzling chorizo. In the fraught arena of geopolitics, even the noblest gestures can go awry.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg View contributor based in Rio de Janeiro.

© 2015, Bloomberg News