The Rights of Spring

The Rights of Spring: A Memoir of Innocence Abroad

David Kennedy
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 118
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  • Book Info
    The Rights of Spring
    Book Description:

    Ana reported being blindfolded, doused in cold water. She was tied to a metal frame; electrodes were fastened to her body. Someone cranked a hand-operated generator.

    One spring more than twenty years ago, David Kennedy visited Ana in an Uruguayan prison as part of the first wave of humanitarian activists to take the fight for human rights to the very sites where atrocities were committed. Kennedy was eager to learn what human rights workers could do, idealistic about changing the world and helping people like Ana. But he also had doubts. What could activists really change? Was there something unseemly about humanitarians from wealthy countries flitting into dictatorships, presenting themselves as white knights, and taking in the tourist sites before flying home? Kennedy wrote up a memoir of his hopes and doubts on that trip to Uruguay and combines it here with reflections on what has happened to the world of international humanitarianism since.

    Now bureaucratized, naming and shaming from a great height in big-city office towers, human rights workers have achieved positions of formidable power. They have done much good. But the moral ambiguity of their work and questions about whether they can sometimes cause real harm endure. Kennedy tackles those questions here with his trademark combination of narrative drive and unflinching honesty. This is a powerful and disturbing tale of the bright sides and the dark sides of the humanitarian world built by good intentions.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3321-4
    Subjects: Political Science, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-10)

    I met Ana Rivera in the small white clinic at Punta Rieles prison. The guards stepped outside, I shook her hand, and Dr. Richard Goldstein, Patrick Breslin, and I became the first outsiders to speak privately and unconditionally with any of the roughly seven hundred political prisoners then held in Uruguayan prisons. We sat down at a small table. Ana was a diminutive woman, about twenty-three years old, her auburn hair pulled awkwardly back in a child’s yellow plastic barrette. Around each wrist hung a redand-white string bracelet. Under her prison overalls, stenciled boldly with her identification number, she wore...

    (pp. 10-15)

    Six days before meeting with Ana, I had left Boston amid the half-joking admonitions of friends to stay out of trouble. As we drove through the Callaghan Tunnel to Logan Airport, our mood was jocular. Uruguay seemed far away: dangerous, exotic, exciting. So long as we kept it distant, Uruguay seemed able to bear the burden of our excitement. As spring vacation approached, I had felt drawn by anything elsewhere, by the prospect of new people and different problems, by the possibility that in Uruguay I would feel more like an international lawyer than I did grading midterm papers on...

    (pp. 16-25)

    Puenta Rieles prison stood on a slight rise at the end of a long driveway, somewhat off a main highway out of Montevideo behind a poor settlement. As it became visible at a distance behind a low fence, it resembled a small redbrick sanatorium near my hometown in southern Michigan where my high school church group had played bingo with the patients. We passed smoothly through the checkpoints despite our early arrival. Guards examined our documents, more formally and seriously than thoroughly. Someone looked in the trunk. Gates opened, and we drove up a freshly raked white gravel drive toward...

    (pp. 25-38)

    In a way, edging toward Punta Rieles, we were just actors playing parts in a tale made familiar by hundreds of childhood fantasies. We were grounded in fealty to our sponsoring institutions and bound by the oaths of our professional service. We hoped that, like knights abroad, we would band together warmly in foreign territory, our friendships tested and forged. But, in another way, we were more than just actors in a familiar cultural drama. Whether in remaking our institutional sponsorship, redefining our professional roles, or developing our team spirit, we were also narrators and directors, creating our roles and...

    (pp. 39-48)

    After our introduction, Ana asked Pat what we wanted to know. A moment of fumbling silence. Pat, Richard, and I had planned our interrogation. We had known that time would be short and conditions uncertain. We had worried that the prisoners might have been too well briefed or might be too frightened to speak freely. We had thought that we would need to “establish trust” and move quickly to get what we needed. Richard was a doctor: he needed some health history and we needed to leave time for a brief physical exam. I was a lawyer: I needed details...

    (pp. 48-58)

    Both within and without the prison walls, our meetings with Uruguayan officials seemed purposive and deliberative, lacking the easy give-and-take of our meetings with the prisoners. As activists avenging our prisoners’ honor, we wanted our interactions with Montevideo officials to be, first and foremost, effective and official relations, and we embraced the rhetorics of human rights and medical ethics enthusiastically. From the start, however, we had a hard time finding the right mix of lawyerly aggression and medical compassion with Uruguayan officials, and it was difficult to release the full force of our concern effectively.

    We got our first chance...

    (pp. 58-68)

    Back in the blue Peugeot, we speed to Libertad, prison for male politicos. The car is hot. Food and five minutes to relax with one another would be fine. If it weren’t for the driver and the guide we could use this time to go over our Punta experiences, knitting them into sense. Behind schedule, we sit silently in the backseat, trying to turn our minds to the longer list of male prisoners awaiting us. I close my eyes. Libertad prison is in the countryside on the other side of Montevideo, in another military district. We see the massive rectangular...

    (pp. 68-79)

    As I sat in the car on the way back to Montevideo, my mind turned eagerly to the tasks ahead. Unlike the drive from Punta Rieles to Libertad, this trip was animated. We had come out. Discussing what we were to do in the coming days, we talked a bit too insistently, too loudly, anxious to ignore the heat and dust. In a way, we wanted to forget the prison, and I was struck by the strength of my desire to put it behind us, to break forward from it, as if the memory were pornographic. Just as the temptation...

    (pp. 80-85)

    At 9:00 the next morning, the Peugeot dropped us at a modest building of stone, identified only by the most discreet chiseling beside the door: Supreme Military Judicial Court. The door opened onto the tiled entrance court of a nineteenth-century city villa. We were ushered up a lavish central oak staircase beneath a stained-glass skylight. In and off the courtyard sat military clerks and guards. Around the second-floor lobby were the judicial offices. One, crammed with files on open shelves, showed the only sign of business. I felt the European aristocracy debased, their court, still noble in service of a...

    (pp. 85-104)

    We spent our remaining twenty-four hours in Uruguay with human rights groups, political party members, the press, and with the relatives of the disappeared, of political prisoners, of our medical students, and of victims of Argentinean repression. We tried to be supportive and to share our experience, that we might release our emotions of solidarity and frustration, and, perhaps, that they might be released from isolation. We tried to be informal and empathetic, without breaking the confidence of our prisoners and government contacts. Sometimes we connected, but, I fear, more often we failed.

    Those with whom we spoke often seemed...

    (pp. 104-105)

    February 11, 1985, Pat writes from Washington:

    Other than writing news, we’ve got a new baby girl, named Glenna. (By the way, in case Richard didn’t mention it: Ramon Hernandez was released New Year’s Eve. All the others were out in September. That gray haired woman who was only 44 was released in August.) And Silva Ledesma, when I saw him in November, to make yet one more pitch for Ramon, was thinking about the future, remembered that I was anescritor, andwondered whether perhaps I might be able to give him some advice about New York publishers. Seems he’s...