Through the valley: Enrique Espinosa Bentancor’s long journey

(Henriette Thompson is director of General Synod’s Partnerships Department and attended the recent Americas Conference on Mutual Responsibility and Mission. There she had an opportunity to hear and record the story of a fellow delegate, Enrique Espinosa Bentancor.)

Enrique Espinosa Bentancor and Henriette Thompson MARY FRANCES SCHJONBERG
Enrique Espinosa Bentancor and Henriette Thompson MARY FRANCES SCHJONBERG

“I believe fervently that when the state does the things that are proper to it, then it commands obedience, but when it exceeds its bounds, when it wants to claim what belongs to God for itself, then it is a religious duty to condemn this abuse of power”-Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Enrique Espinosa Bentancor’s life testifies to the consequences of taking Archbishop Tutu’s words to heart. It testifies as well to the healing hand of God guiding through and out of the darkest circumstances.

Enrique’s story, as he told it to me in Costa Rica during the recent Americas Conference on Mutual Responsibility and Mission, begins in 1972 when he was a young man of 25 living in Montevideo, Uruguay, with his parents and an older brother.

It was a difficult time in Uruguay. Since 1967, under the leadership of President Jorge Pacheco Areco, the nation had been in crisis. Out of the political instability emerged Uruguay’s National Liberation Movement, known as the Tupamaros. This well-organized urban guerrilla movement mounted a campaign of kidnapping, assassination, and bank robbery while espousing Marxist and nationalist ideals inspired by the Cuban experience.

In 1972, Enrique worked in Bao, a unionized soap factory in Montevideo when one day he was rounded up with others simply for belonging to a union. The state deemed him (and an estimated 6,000 other people) to be threats.

The next 10 years of Enrique’s life consisted of deprivation and torture in a prison and town ironically named Libertad (Liberty).  For the first 10 months of his detention, he was hooded and tortured most days depending on the information he was willing to divulge to the prison guards. To Enrique the extreme violence and brutality of his captors was unanticipated. He suffered prolonged blackouts. He was beaten so brutally that he lost sight in his left eye.

Yet, he resolved to hold himself together by concentrating on his responsibility not to “confess” about fellow union members. In his mind, he reconstructed books, movies, stories, and conversations from the past, and then reinvented them endlessly. He recalled an ineffable Presence that sustained him and prevented him from hating his captors. The palpable spirit of Jesus as his companion comforted and strengthened him.

From May 1973 until the end of 1975, Enrique was in solitary confinement in a tiny cell with only a small window grate. During this time, his life was almost unbearable. A psychologist who specialized in torture applied psychological deprivation to break the prisoners’ spirits and will and engineered a wall of hostility and inhumanity between guards and prisoners that was almost complete in its devastation. The guards called the prisoners pichi—scum of the earth.

Men were bunked two to a small cell with one bucket of water a day between them for sanitation and to drink. Arbitrary availability of tap water was part of a strategy to psychologically destabilize prisoners. Cellmates were changed regularly to prevent relationships developing. Family visits (two people per visit) were restricted to every 15 days. Enrique’s parents and brother struggled to offer ongoing love and encouragement.

Enrique recalled one daily moment of reprieve. At night when the guards drank their maté, a green tea, they would look the other way, while prisoners whispered to each other through their tiny window grates.

In the middle of 1982, transitional president, Gregorio Álvarez Armellino offered detainees the option of asylum in Sweden due to pressure from those with economic interests in Uruguay. Many accepted, but others had lost so much by then, including hope, that they committed suicide. Enrique could not countenance such a move.

“I envisioned myself as a tree with deep roots in Uruguay—family, friends, place. I felt my ideals were the shade or hope I could provide for those on the outside who were continuing the struggle for freedom and justice under great difficulty. I couldn’t see myself living in Sweden when everything I needed for life was in Uruguay.” Each time Enrique refused the option of asylum he was reassigned to the prison ward.

Meanwhile, pressure from the International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International, and the Organization of American States, as well as the re-emergence of the traditional political parties (Blancos and Colorados), led to a lessening of human rights violations. Conversations with prisoners occurred without the presence of guards. Some prisoners were released and others experienced improvements in prison conditions.

In February 1983, Enrique, now 36, was released from “Libertad” prison. He weighed a mere 46 kilograms. He was given new trousers and a shirt and directed to walk a kilometre away from the prison entrance to the place where his family awaited.

Adjustment to life outside prison was gradual. For months, the noise of traffic overwhelmed him and caused him to walk next to buildings for fear of being run over. But he cherished his freedom daily.

Enrique resumed his work for justice and freedom. While putting up human rights posters in Liberty Square in downtown Montevideo, Enrique met Ana who was also involved in the democratic movement. Ana, an English teacher working as a maid, had two young children and Enrique became a “father of the heart” to them. Ana became the solace Enrique needed to heal and reintegrate back into community life.  He still often wonders what life would have been like without Ana and their sons.

Ana too had been in prison. Together, she and Enrique worked to create a home and to embrace the ongoing work to democratize Uruguay. Enrique was, nevertheless, required to report weekly to the military barracks.

Today he looks back on his life with equanimity. He acknowledges the deep pain and inhumanity he and his family and close friends experienced. “I believe we have all been strengthened by the hard years,” he says. Enrique credits God’s presence for his ability to endure the suffering and for his capacity to heal. The apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans comes to mind. “I consider the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us…But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:18-25)

Today Enrique, 63, and Ana, 60, continue their involvement in bringing about healing and greater democracy in their country. Their sons are grown—one lives in Spain, the other is nearby in Montevideo. Enrique maintains contact with other former detainees, some of whom have entered politics.

Enrique and Ana have chosen to focus their energy on advancing women’s rights, on working to protect children from violence and on supporting families living with alcoholism. Both find sustenance for their work in the Anglican parish of St. Stephen’s in Montevideo where they support people and families living with HIV and AIDS.

Enrique and Ana take to heart the Marks of Mission of the Anglican Church. With Desmond Tutu, they believe “We must be the Church of the poor and the marginalised ones, who have no power or voice. We must become their voice and strive to empower them, and help them help themselves so that they can enter into their heritage—the heritage of the freedom of the children of God.”

(For further theological and Biblical reflection on the struggle of people to move from impunity to reconciliation, please read Impunity: An Ethical Perspective, edited by Charles Harper. One of the case studies focuses on Uruguay.)

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