Remembering Uruguay: May tyrants tremble!

The military junta that ruled Uruguay from 1973 was intolerant in the extreme. Hundreds of thousands fled into exile. Political opponents were jailed. Torture was the order of the day.

On occasion, even concerts of classical music were seen as subversive threats. A performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for Left Hand was cancelled because the title sounded leftishly dangerous. Meanwhile, however, a remarkable small protest took place at soccer games throughout the twelve long years of military rule.

Whenever the band struck up the national anthem before major games, thousands of Uruguayans in the stadium joined in unenthusiastically. This stubborn failure to sing loudly was rebellion enough. But, from the generals’ point of view, there was worse to come. At one point, the anthem declares, Tiranos temblad! —“May tyrants tremble!” Those words served as the cue for the crowds in the stadium suddenly to bellow in unison: “Tiranos temblad!” as they waved their flags. After that brief, excited roar, they continued to mumble their way through to the end of the long anthem.

The authorities could not arrest everyone in the stadium. Nor could they cancel games or drop the singing of the national anthem. The junta toyed with the idea of removing the tiranos temblad! line from public performances of the anthem, but that proved too embarrassing. Why, after all, would the generals remove words from a beloved nineteenth-century hymn, unless they believed that they might be the tyrants in question?

Today, the national anthem can be sung at Uruguayan soccer games in full and without fear. Leaders of the junta have been jailed for the crimes committed during their years in power. The former tyrants tremble.

Thanks to Steve Crawsaw and John Jackson for ‘ Small Acts of Resistance’ (2010).

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