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.
Debbie Sharnak is Assistant Professor of History and International Studies at Rowan University.
"Of Light and Struggle is a beautifully written study that exemplifies the possibilities of transnational histories attuned to the promise and limits of global solidarity movements and their local expressions. Sharnak deftly moves between Latin America, the United States, and Europe, and her account brings together actors and institutions that are typically analyzed in isolation from one another or left out altogether from narratives of recent Uruguayan history. Eminently readable and moving, the book is a major contribution to the history of human rights and democracy in Latin America, and to the study of ongoing movements to build more just societies."—The North American Congress on Latin America
"In Of Light and Struggle, Debbie Sharnak persuasively shows how [this] small country both shaped and was shaped by international human rights advocacy. She also puts into context how Uruguay’s experience highlights the fluidity of the meaning of human rights and the elasticity of the path from dictatorship to democracy to justice...[T]houghtfully and meticulously researched...Although those with an interest in Uruguay and human rights will be interested in the book, Debbie Sharnak’s clear and accessible writing style will appeal to readers with no background in these topics as well."—ReVista: Harvard Review of Latin America
"[A]dmirably lucid, deeply researched and nuanced...[Of Light and Struggle] draws Uruguay from the peripheral place it has occupied in previous studies of the Southern Cone during these transformational years. Sharnak also brings the country into the debate on transitional justice, and she provides a valuable addition to the sparse literature on Uruguayan-US relations in these years. A superb accomplishment."—International Affairs
"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
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