Of Light and Struggle
Social Justice, Human Rights, and Accountability in Uruguay
by Debbie Sharnak
During the country’s dictatorship from 1973 to 1985, Uruguayans suffered under crushing repression, which included the highest rate of political incarceration in the world. In Of Light and Struggle, Debbie Sharnak explores how activists, transnational social movements, and international policymakers collaborated and clashed in response to this era and during the country’s transition back to democratic rule.
At the heart of the book is an examination of how the language and politics of human rights shifted over time as a result of conflict and convergence between local, national, and global dynamics. Sharnak examines the utility and limits of human rights language used by international NGOs, such as Amnesty International, and foreign governments, such as the Carter administration. She does so by exploring tensions between their responses to the dictatorship’s violations and the grassroots struggle for socioeconomic rights as well as new social movements around issues of race, gender, religion, and sexuality in Uruguay. Sharnak exposes how international activists used human rights language to combat repression in foreign countries, how local politicians, unionists, and students articulated more expansive social justice visions, how the military attempted to coopt human rights language for its own purposes, and how broader debates about human rights transformed the fight over citizenship in renewed democratic societies. By exploring the interplay between debates taking place in activists’ living rooms, presidential administrations, and international halls of power, Sharnak uncovers the messy and contingent process through which human rights became a powerful discourse for social change, and thus contributes to a new method for exploring the history of human rights.
By looking at this pivotal period in international history, Of Light and Struggle suggests that discussions around the small country on the Río de la Plata had global implications for the possibilities and constraints of human rights well beyond Uruguay’s shores.
"In this beautifully written and meticulously researched book, Debbie Sharnak gives the definitive history of how diverse actors used human rights in Uruguay before, during, and after the dictatorship, not as an idea they had recently discovered but as one that evokes Uruguay’s long tradition of social justice."—Kathryn Sikkink, Harvard University
"An essential contribution to studies of human rights and transitional justice in the late Cold War, Of Light and Struggle exemplifies how countries with seemingly marginal significance to the international system are actually critical for the strategies and languages of transnational activists and U.S. policymakers. This work, fully grounded in both U.S. and Latin American histories and archives, exemplifies the vanguard of new scholarship in the field of U.S. and the World, bridging the studies of grassroots activism and high-level diplomacy. Expanding her analysis into the periods before and after dictatorial rule, Sharnak challenges scholars of human rights to explore the long-term implications of transnational activism on diverse communities."—Vanessa Walker, Amherst College
"In her revelatory book, Debbie Sharnak makes a compelling case for the significance of Uruguay in the larger history of human rights and transitional justice. Of Light and Struggle maps the complicated evolution of definitions of human rights through Uruguay’s descent into dictatorship and subsequent long transitions to democracy and justice. Methodologically rigorous, it tells a truly national, regional, and international story, which should be of interest to all who care about human rights."—Sarah Snyder, American University