Home / Articles / Jimmy Carter and the ‘Torture Chamber of Latin America’: Examining a Human Rights Legacy
President Jimmy Carter was the first president to integrate human rights into US foreign policy, but his efforts received a mixed reception from the foreign policy establishment.
The Carter administration focused its policies toward Uruguay—a dictatorship that was known as the “torture chamber of Latin America”—around a human rights strategy. Washington cut aid to the Uruguayan military, publicly and privately condemned human rights abuses, and supported opposition groups.
While it’s hard to precisely measure the effectiveness of the Carter administration’s human rights strategy in Uruguay, there’s reason to believe that the approach was one factor that eventually contributed to the country’s democratic transition that began several years after Carter had been voted out of office.
Carter’s policy towards Uruguay also offers a window into the importance of human rights in US foreign policy, and the role that small states can play as a testing ground for innovative policies outside the headlines.
On February 18, 2023, the Carter Center announced that former President Jimmy Carter would receive hospice care. In the days that followed, a flood of articles appeared that praised his core decency, highlighted his post-presidential global health and humanitarian work, and offered reassessments of his oft-criticized legacy during his four years in the White House.
Carter’s foreign policy record is perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of his administration. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis produced twin crises that structured much of the initial perception of his weakness on the international stage, an image that Ronald Reagan successfully capitalized on during the 1980 presidential election that sent Carter home to Georgia as a one-term president. Even Carter’s most visible contribution to foreign policy, elevating human rights concerns in US foreign policy, has endured vehement criticism over the years for its supposed hypocrisy regarding support for authoritarian regimes such as the Shah of Iran, as well as its mixed results over four years in office.
Yet, news of his decision to forgo any further medical interventions in favor of receiving end of life care offers an opportunity to reevaluate Carter’s human rights legacy, which can perhaps structure how to analyze the role of human rights in US foreign policy more broadly. Specifically, examining Carter’s bilateral relations with Uruguay—an authoritarian regime that was once considered the “torture chamber of Latin America”—reveals vital tools to advance human rights, such as cutting aid, public condemnation of abuses, and support of opposition groups. Furthermore, American policy toward Uruguay during the Carter administration demonstrates the importance of small states in the global system as a testing ground for innovative presidential policies.
Championing, then Defining, Human Rights
Carter’s election in November 1976 placed human rights concerns at the highest levels of US foreign policy. Yet, Carter did not lead this charge; he was actually quite late to the fight. In the early to mid-1970s, Congress dragged the executive branch into the human rights “explosion.” The legislative body’s move to pass legislation tying foreign aid to human rights and hold hearings to elevate concern over violations abroad constituted a reaction to the growing transnational human rights movement and the abuses of the Nixon administration.
Indeed, when Carter began to incorporate human rights into his presidential platform in the latter part of his campaign, the focus offered a fundamental change from the Nixon-Ford-Kissinger realist approach to foreign policy. Carter, by contrast, hoped he could convince the country to move past the legacy of Vietnam and the American “struggle for the soul of the country” that had followed. By the time of his inauguration and his claim that America’s “commitment to human rights must be absolute,” he championed a larger refocusing of American foreign policy beyond the bipolarity of the Cold War. Carter saw human rights as a way to organize a new, comprehensive, and long-term strategy that would reflect stronger North-South ties and move beyond what Carter called America’s “inordinate fear of communism.”
Carter started by concentrating on a “limited number of ‘worst’ cases.” Uruguay, at that time led by a dictatorship that had seized power in 1973, was one of those cases. By the time Carter took office, many termed the country the “torture chamber of Latin America” for boasting the highest per capita number of political prisoners in the world. The case offers an opportunity to analyze the way that Uruguay, as a small country frequently under the radar of the foreign policy establishment, allowed the administration to test out new policy tools.
Case Study: Uruguay
In a memo from the Director of Policy Planning Anthony Lake (later President Bill Clinton’s national security advisor) to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Lake noted that in Uruguay, “our bilateral interests are so modest that our prime interest is human rights.” Due to the extent of human rights violations there, as well as the lack of competing security concerns that often defined Carter’s policy toward larger countries (e.g., Iran, South Korea, or the Soviet Union), the administration focused its policies toward Uruguay around a human rights strategy by cutting aid to the Uruguayan military, publicly and privately condemning abuses in the nation, and supporting opposition groups.
Indeed, despite Carter’s difficulty in implementing a human rights policy around the globe, examining his policies with Uruguay offers a window into one of his administration’s most vigorous human rights efforts. This consistent human rights pressure was possible because the country represented a best-case scenario—Carter had little to lose diplomatically in relations with the small Southern Cone nation and, therefore, his administration and the local embassy officials could afford to be more insistent in its human rights stance. In this way, Carter’s policies toward Uruguay reveal the internal logic and instruments his administration employed without the tradeoffs and limits that are evident in his human rights policies toward many other regions and countries around the world.
One way Carter implemented a focused human rights policy was within the State Department, where the Uruguay embassy team was handpicked to be a model in these human rights efforts. John Youle, the political officer in the Montevideo office from 1977 to 1981, explained that the embassy under Nixon and Ford had been viewed as outspokenly supportive of the military with continual pushes to provide them arms and spare parts. Under Vance’s State Department, the administration implemented an entirely new team at the top that was strongly supportive of Carter’s human rights initiatives. This new team included Lawrence Pezzullo as an ambassador who made human rights “the central issue” in diplomatic relations. For example, after the Senate confirmed him, one of the first things Pezzullo did was go to Rep. Ed Koch, who had authored the 1976 amendment to cut off aid to Uruguay on human rights grounds despite fervent opposition from the Ford administration, to explain that there would be a change at the embassy to focus on a human rights perspective. Indeed, by the midpoint of the administration, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Patt Derian acknowledged that “the U.S. Embassy in Montevideo is by far ‘the most active in human rights issues.’” Appointing human rights-oriented bureaucrats to implement day-to-day policy was an important initiative for how Carter’s administration would prioritize human rights considerations in individual countries.
In addition to selecting particular State Department personnel, the Carter administration incorporated many of the tools Congress had employed in the early 1970s into the executive branch. Rather than serve as a point of contention between the legislature and the presidency like it had under Nixon and Ford, Carter utilized these instruments to promote human rights, especially in Uruguay. For example, the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices came to play a key role in the administration. While Kissinger had been, as historian Barbara Keys notes, “willing to engage in quite blatant evasion of the law” to avoid implementation, Carter and Vance declassified and publicized these reports, using them to inform policy decisions. These actions meant that Carter no longer followed a long line of presidents who claimed ignorance about abuses in other countries. Documentation of the abuses educated the administration and the public regarding human rights violations abroad. The reports about Uruguay were critical of the military regime, detailing the incarceration of long-term political detainees, disappearances, and torture. Human rights groups had first laid out these abuses in their reports, and the State Department now publicized these violations as well.
The reports also informed decisions on aid. In one of Carter’s first interdepartmental meetings on February 3, 1977, just weeks after his inauguration, the administration began working to eliminate foreign military sales to Uruguay. While previous administrations linked continued aid with geopolitical interests, Carter, following the logic of activists and congressional actors, rejected this view with respect to Uruguay and decoupled the assumption that security assistance to repressive regimes furthered Cold War aims. Instead, the Carter administration adopted the view that, particularly in the Southern Cone, US support for the regimes had damaged its global leadership and made the US complicit in human rights abuses. Thus, on February 24, 1977, Vance addressed a Senate subcommittee and explained that the administration was reducing foreign aid to Uruguay, Argentina, and Ethiopia due to their human rights violations. Carter followed through on this policy despite protests from a variety of business groups, right-wing senators, and even the Uruguayan military itself. Carter’s determination on this issue symbolized a shift in the executive branch’s support for human rights in foreign policy towards Uruguay and constituted a break from Nixon and Ford’s intransigent opposition to communism no matter the human rights costs.
These are just a few of the instruments the Carter administration used to implement a human rights-focused foreign policy, and its results are hard to fully determine. On one hand, the Uruguayan military at times seemed intransigent in the face of this criticism and it frequently railed against the “unfair” treatment it felt it was receiving as part of the US’s “moral imperialism.” In addition, part of the difficulty of determining Carter’s impact is due to broader problems with his policy on a global level—Carter’s administration failed to publicly acknowledge the limited power of foreign governments to change human rights practices in other sovereign states. By according the broad notion of “human rights” such a prominent place in his administration, Carter raised expectations without clearly defining the limitations of human rights and the reach of its policy. This vagueness, combined with his inability to articulate the limited capacity of US influence, hampered his policy and the public’s perception of his effectiveness.
Additionally, the democratic transition in Uruguay did not occur until almost five years after Carter had been voted out of office. As one memo on Carter’s impact in Latin America noted, “net incremental changes [in human rights practices] are difficult to identify and impossible to quantify. No government is likely to admit that it is pursuing a more civilized and humane policy towards its own citizens because of outside advice or pressure.”
Yet, as another memo on US human rights policy during his term noted, while no military regimes fell in the Southern Cone, including Uruguay, “some political systems are becoming somewhat freer…a trend seems to have begun which could gather momentum and which already is improving the plight of individuals…and individuals are what the human rights policy is primarily about.” The Carter administration’s focus on these actions in Uruguay, especially in the absence of conflicting strategic priorities, helped the administration develop policy tools and influence his thinking on human rights implementation that could be applied to other countries around the globe. Years later, Julio María Sanguinetti, who became first president after the transition back to democratic rule, praised Carter. He believed that “in those years of dictatorship, those of us in the opposition had to struggle practically in the dark. One of the few significant sources of support we had was the policy of the US government, which was constantly looking for human rights violations.”
Indeed, a Washington Office on Latin America report in 1978 noted that the Carter administration “encouraged the democratic opposition…[and] restored the United States to a position of prestige…who for years, regarded their neighbor to the north as the hidden power behind every dictatorship on the continent.” In this way, Carter’s policies offered a fundamental change from previous administrations’ support for repressive regimes in Latin America in the name of Cold War objectives. It might even have had the greatest impact in Uruguay by providing support to opposition groups as opposed to having a direct impact on the military regime’s calculations about its use of torture and political imprisonment.
Ultimately, analyzing Carter’s human rights policy towards Uruguay offers a window into the role small states can play as a testing ground for instruments to promote human rights outside the headlines. Examining Carter’s bilateral relations with the country helps offer a more complete picture of his foreign policy achievements, as well provide a model for future administrations which continue to struggle with many of the same challenges of human rights implementation even now that human rights discourse and policy is more normalized within the US foreign policy making. As analysts continue to reevaluate his legacy at the end of his long life, these smaller, often considered strategically less important countries, provide a point of reconsideration to see how these smaller states did not elide administration prioritization, but rather served as a place to tryout broader initiatives and ideas that had enduring impact around the globe.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.