Uruguay is playing for you

Despite what happened at the 2010 World Cup, Africans have more in common with Uruguayans.

Uruguay's national team, lining up for its national anthem, ahead of a qualifying match for Russia 2018.

The knock came at four in morning on Sunday, April 15, 1984.  Dr. Vladimir Roslik of San Javier was informed by an officer of Uruguay’s 9th Cavalry Regiment that he was being arrested for questioning.  The next day Roslik’s wife was advised to collect her husband’s body from the Fray Bentos Hospital.

Roslik, who attained his medical degree from Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow in 1969 was to be the last victim of Uruguay’s military dictatorship.  

A station wagon adorned in red and yellow flowers carried Dr. Roslik’s coffin to the San Javier cemetery.  A cortège followed, the descendants of the three hundred Russian families who founded the town along Uruguay River in 1913.  As Vladimir Roslik was laid to rest, one could imagine the sunflowers of San Javier — famously introduced to Uruguay by Russian immigrants — turning away from the Autumnal sun.  

In subsequent independent autopsies all attending physicians agreed Roslik’s lungs contained water and presented signs of asphyxia resulting from immersion, consistent with water boarding or what is known in the region as “the submarine,” what Apartheid South Africa’s torturers used to call “tubing” or “water bagging.”

Roslik’s corpse also showed signs of having been subjected to various forms of intense violence.  This almost seven years after the brutal beating to death in custody of South African Black Consciousness activist and anti apartheid campaigner, Steve Biko.  While Biko’s death attracted some global attention, the same couldn’t be said for Roslik. South America remained under the shadow of Operation Condor, a US Central Intelligence Agency program designed to stamp out Soviet influence and communism.

Military juntas financed by the CIA and emboldened by Henry Kissinger (first US national security advisor and then Secretary of State for much of the 1970s) carried on disappearing their opposition, kidnapping babies, and committing torture and murder.  French military advisers posted to the region in the 1970s by President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing ensured torture techniques first tested in the Battle of Algiers were carried out with deadly efficiency by their colleagues in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.

Uruguay confronted this past, eventually, but not without protracted legislative and legal wrangling that continues to this day.  The Ley de Caducidad or Expiry Law of 1985, which granted amnesty to military and security personnel for human rights abuses committed during the dictatorship was only overturned in 2011.  Gregorio Álvarez, the Uruguayan Army General who served as de facto President of Uruguay from 1981 to 1985 was eventually convicted on 37 counts of murder and Human Rights abuses. He died in prison in 2016, aged 91.  A majority of cases, however, remain open and many of those who bear responsibility remain free.

The Vladimir Roslik FC team banner on Vladimir Roslik Plaza.

In recent years, local municipal government and civil society have also attempted to reconcile with the horrors of the dictatorship.  There is now a brass plaque dedicated to Vladimir Roslik on the wall of the Uruguayan Army barracks in Fray Bentos. It is dressed with sunflowers every April 16 when the Mayor of Fray Bentos holds a ceremony to honour Vladimir Roslik.  The city of Montevideo donated one of her finest neoclassical buildings to the establishment of Museo de La Memoria.  It is dedicated to nearly 10% of the population who fled the country, the thousands who were jailed and the hundreds who were disappeared and killed during the dictatorship.

A foundation started by Roslik’s widow, Maria Zavalkin, has been established to carry on the work of Dr. Vladimir Roslik in San Javier.  It supports a clinic and children’s’ day care centre, as well as providing home care for elderly.

Less well known, but an equally inspiring tribute to Vladimir Roslik can be found in the barrio of Cordón in Montevideo.  Cordón sits between Barrio Sur and Palermo — were Isabelino Gradín was raised, the black forward whose goals helped Uruguay win the inaugural Copa America in 1916 — and the barrio of Tres Cruces — were Luis Suárez spent his childhood mastering the geometry, philosophy and other traditions of Uruguayan football.  

The intersection between Frugoni, Yani and Charrúa Streets in Cordón has now been named Plaza Vladimir Roslik.  In 2013, locals formed VLADIMIR ROSLIK FC to honour his memory and those in the neighbourhood whose commitment to their community mirror that of Dr. Vladimir Roslik.  Murals have been painted on the pavement and walls and the plaza is now a playground for children and meeting place for all team members or “Vladimires.” Here on Sundays you will also see the fire tuning of drums and hear the Llamada or Call — the invitation to all the black barrios to march together through the streets of Montevideo.

The Vladimir Roslik FC team. Image by Nicholás Marone.

The experience of this obscure Russian community in Uruguay presents a salutary lesson for our time, both for those with more liberal credentials than the Uruguayan Junta of 1970s and 80s who are gripped by Russia hysteria and those who peddle in xenophobia and fear of immigrants.  Vladimir Roslik was subjected to cruel torture and death purely on the basis of his ethnicity. The Uruguayan military dictatorship conflated Russians and communists and set about persecuting a whole village, accusing them of collaborating with the Soviet Union, eventually murdering an upstanding member of that community.  

Uruguay is often neglected in talk of the Global South, yet the resilience found in the people of San Javier and those from communities like Cordón, geographically underpin the whole idea of the nation.  With no African teams remaining in the World Cup and for those who have issues supporting Western European teams, take a look at the team photo of Vladimir Rostik FC and their maths teacher coach, Nicolás Marone, and remember Uruguay (also coached by a teacher, El Maestro Tabárez) are playing for them, their African slave ancestors, the immigrants, the tortured and desaparecidos and doing so in the spirit of the native Charrúa, and that’s means Uruguay is also playing for many of you.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.