Uruguayans divided over transfer of Guantanamo prisoners

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Uruguayans are reacting with mixed emotions to their government’s acceptance of six former U.S. detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The transfer of the prisoners — four Syrians, a Tunisian and a Palestinian — was in the works since March, but finalized over the weekend. All six men, originally detained on suspicions of terrorist activity but never formally charged with a crime, were cleared for release by the U.S. Guantanamo Review Task Force. They're currently under medical observation at a military hospital in Montevideo.


Uruguayan President José Alberto "Pepe" Mujica agreed to accept the prisoners on humanitarian grounds earlier this year. In exchange, he asked the U.S. to lift its embargo on Cuba and free three Cubans and a Puerto Rican independence leader jailed in the U.S. There’s no indication that the U.S. is prepared to meet any of Mujica’s requests, but said thanks anyway.

“The United States is grateful to the government of Uruguay for its willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility,” the Department of Defense said in a release. “The United States coordinated with the government of Uruguay to ensure these transfers took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures.”


Not all Uruguayans, however, share the same sense of gratitude. The news even seemed to catch those in the media off-guard.


"Weren't they going to wait to see what the next government decided?" asked Ricardo Peirano, editor of Uruguay's El Observador newsapaper.

Others reacted with inhospitality mixed with fear.


If you see these guys prowling around your house, close your doors and windows,tweeted Uruguayan blogger Antonio Romero Piriz.

That post, hosted on the Facebook page “I don’t want terrorists from Guantanamo,” sparked a lively and lowbrow conversation among some of the group’s 687 members.


“They’re not coming to rob your house, they were brought here to do the only thing they know how: terrorism,” replied Mirtha Ferrao on her Facebook account. Facebook user Cristina Bazzano speculated about how the released prisoners will be used to teach students how to make bombs, while another user advised people to avoid the discos where the resettled prisoners were allegedly hired to work as security.


Others are more supportive of the president's move.

@Laurapitter @hrw Mujica for Nobel prize!!!!!! Mujica does it again.

— Justin Montana (@technochango) December 7, 2014

Opinion polls show that Uruguayans are pretty evenly split on the issue. A national telephone survey conducted in July by polling firm CIFRA shows that 50 percent of the population is against Uruguay receiving the Guantanamo detainees, while 30 percent are for it and 20 percent don’t know what to think. Mujica, most likely realizing how contentious the prisoner-resettlement issue was, waited until after the Dec. 1 presidential runoff to proceeded with the transfer.


Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, says the polls indicated that “public opinion is wary of the decision” and “there is some nervousness” about what it means for the country. But he doubts there will be any serious pushback against Mujica’s outgoing government.


“This is another case, like the marijuana issue, in which Mujica acted boldly, out of conviction, going against public opinion. He deserves some credit for that,” Shifter told Fusion.

Indeed, Mujica has spoken boldly on the issue, insisting the prisoner resettlement represents no threat for the country and lambasting his critics as “cowardly” people with a “rotten soul.”


“We have always been a country of refugees,” Mujica said.

The United States is still holding 136 captives at Guantanamo Bay, of whom 67 are already approved to transfer, according a complete list published by the Miami Herald. Human Rights Watch is celebrating Uruguay's resettlement of the six former detainees as "an important step toward ending the longstanding injustice of holding people indefinitely without charge at Guantanamo" and is calling on other countries to follow the South American nation's example in hospitality.

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