At 9.00pm on the evening of 22 December, the noise of a caceroleo swept once more over the city of Montevideo. This is one of a number of ritual protests employed by Uruguayans during the savage military dictatorship which lasted between 1973 and 1985. In houses, on balconies and street corners people stand and bang together saucepans and anything they can lay their hands on, even an empty oil drum rolled over the cobblestones. Furtive groups of demonstrators move through dimly-lit streets as if to disturb the ghosts of repression. The demonstration, deafening and slightly sinister, was all the more pointed because these ghosts had supposedly been laid to rest by the elections of 1984, replacing the military with an elected government. But the elections had left many unanswered questions—most obviously with regard to human rights. What was to happen to the assassins and torturers who had flourished during the dictatorship and still walked the streets of Montevideo? In Argentina the Generals had attempted to bargain for their immunity with prospective civilian governments; they had failed. Generals and ex-presidents, discredited by the Malvinas war, found themselves in the dock. In Uruguay, on 22 December 1986, a Law was passed—the Ley de Caducidad—which in effect gave the armed forces immunity from prosecution before a single case had reached court.

It is difficult and probably impossible for an outsider to comprehend fully the depth of feeling on this issue among many Uruguayans. This tiny country, slotted between Brazil and Argentina as a ‘buffer state’ at the insistence of the British in the nineteenth century, has been experiencing the most catastrophic episode in its brief history. In the space of little more than a decade, between the mid 1960s and the mid 1970s, it was transformed from the ‘Switzerland of Latin America’, with the highest and most evenly distributed standard of living on the Continent, into the ‘Torture Chamber of Latin America’, with the largest proportion of political prisoners of any country in the world. A gentle, rather sedate and uneventful place, known to foreigners mostly as a tourist resort, was overtaken by the same wave of repression that swept across the rest of the Continent, leaving in its wake mass impoverishment of a kind quite unknown before. Some 300,000 Uruguayans, one tenth of the population, left the country.

Knowing the bare facts of this traumatic experience, I recently revisited the country after fourteen years, to find it suspended uneasily between appearance and reality. The initial appearance is of a country past its prime, perhaps, but flourishing nonetheless. Electricity supplies have been improved, long-overdue drainage schemes to reduce pollution in the River Plate are under construction, roads have been resurfaced and there are even more traffic lights at road junctions. The shops in the city centre are stocked for prosperity; the seediness of Montevideo, where one million of the country’s three million people live, has been partially washed away. Whatever obvious signs of repression I had expected to find (jack boots, bullet holes, blood on the streets?) were not there to found. The city had been given a facelift.

But it wears a fixed stare. The statue of Artigas, the Liberator from colonial rule, in the Plaza Independencia, now rests upon a marble mausoleum of brutal totalitarian design and not unlike a bunker, its grandiose stairways deserted. What was once the most modest Presidential Palace in Latin America is now vacant, abandoned by Julio Sanguinetti in favour of a modern and luxurious replacement constructed by the military for themselves. To one side of the old palace, two more floors have been added to what was to have been the Palace of justice—still unfinished after twenty years. On the opposite side of the square the Victoria Plaza hotel—Uruguay’s most prestigious—has been taken over by the Moonies.

Along the main shoping street women with babies sit begging. The older children, expressionless and aggressive, demand money from shoppers. I had never seen begging in Uruguay before, nor the lines of street vendors selling shoddy goods smuggled in from Brazil. Around the Tristán Narvaja market the sidestreets are carpeted with the remnants of whole households: a single shoe, rusty nails, worn plastic containers. Family groups stand behind them, waiting.