Uruguay Guantanamo offer becomes political hot potato

Uruguay`s offer to take in six Guantanamo inmates has become a political hot potato in an election year, and may not survive the change of administration in March.

AFP| Last Updated: Oct 09, 2014, 07:03 AM IST

Montevideo: Uruguay`s offer to take in six Guantanamo inmates has become a political hot potato in an election year, and may not survive the change of administration in March.

With leftist President Jose Mujica`s party facing a tight race to hold onto power in the October 26 vote, it has come under fire for trying to "solve a problem the United States created illegitimately," in the words of center-right presidential hopeful Luis Lacalle Pou.

Mujica, a doctor and former guerrilla who has become something of a celebrity for legalizing marijuana, giving most of his salary to charity and living in a humble farmhouse, announced in March that Uruguay would accept the inmates on humanitarian grounds, saying they would be granted the same freedoms as any resident.

He said the move aimed to help US President Barack Obama fulfill his long-delayed promise to close the prison set up in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, where 149 inmates are still detained.

He also cited personal reasons, saying he sympathized with the inmates` plight because of the 13 years he himself spent as a political prisoner.

But with Mujica`s term coming to an end and Uruguay`s one-term limit barring him from running again, it looks increasingly likely the matter will fall to his successor.

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reportedly hesitated for months over transferring the men, worried about whether they would pose a threat.

And now Uruguay is in mid-campaign season, with Mujica`s Broad Front party at risk of losing its legislative majority.

The issue has turned into a headache for the Broad Front`s presidential candidate, Tabare Vazquez, who was president from 2005 to 2010 and wants the job again.

"The Uruguayan people don`t know what`s being planned, or what the country`s being signed up for," said his main opponent, Lacalle Pou, a former president`s son who is running for the National Party.

"Based on the information I have, I would refuse" to take the inmates, he said.Officials have not named the inmates who would be brought to Uruguay.

They have been described as low-level operatives who have been cleared for release but cannot return home because of conflicts or the threat of torture.

Uruguayan media have reported that one of them is Abu Wa`el Dhiab of Syria, whose right to go on hunger strike without being force-fed is at the center of a US court case this week.

The uncertainty around the issue has sparked controversy and given the opposition a useful wedge issue at a time when Vazquez is leading in opinion polls with 42 percent but likely to face a hard-fought run-off against Lacalle Pou on November 30.

Vazquez said last month he still backs the transfer plan, and sought to soothe nervous voters.

"The fear is that if these Guantanamo prisoners are terrorists, they could operate here. But the United States is fighting terrorism all over the world. If these men posed any risk... surely the United States wouldn`t set them free," he said.But debate around the issue only heated up.

Mujica himself spoke up to defend the plan this week, saying: "You can`t be such a rotten soul in this world that you don`t have the courage to lend a hand for a just cause."

He sought to push the issue off the campaign agenda, saying the transfer would only take place after the elections.

"There`s no reason to worry now. We`ll have to see what the new government`s opinion is," he told journalists Wednesday, after a poll showed 58 percent of Uruguayans oppose the transfer and just 24 percent support it.

Juan Carlos Doyenart, a political analyst and the head of consultancy Interconsult, said Mujica had mishandled the issue, focusing on international opinion instead of local politics.

The Uruguayan leader "should have managed this issue from the foreign ministry, and consulted with the opposition. But he wanted to play it as a personal matter and not a state matter. That`s the root of the complications he`s facing today," he said.

"He wants to look like a peace-maker, someone who deserves a Nobel Prize."

The resulting political uncertainty is a "headache" for the next administration, he said, and is "complicating things for the Americans."