Uruguay: Belela Herrera

I feel the misfortune of others, the suffering of poor people in my own heart. I cannot help all of humanity but I can help the people near to me.”

— Belela Herrera

Her life changed with the Chilean state coup against Salvador Allende, in 1973. At that time, Belela Herrera, born in Uruguay and mother of five children, lived in Chile. The country had to respect a curfew and go through disappearances and daily arrests that were kept quiet. Her house became a refuge for Chileans and people of other nationalities who were persecuted by the military. She saved several people's lives, putting her own life at risk during her work for the United Nations High Committee for Refugees. Today, Belela is 77 years old and Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs of Uruguay.

“I studied in a German school. We sang the Nazi anthem with our arms stretched out. I took my arm down saying that I am Uruguayan,” remembers Belela Herrera (77). She was only ten, then, and belonged to what was called the Uruguayan elite. “Later on, I realized that that was an evil thing and I denied all that it stood for.” In spite of her history of protest, at age 21, she married the son of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and they had five children. In 1969, her husband was elected as Business Attaché of the Uruguayan Embassy in Chile. “That was the year of the Presidential elections.” Salvador Allende won and with him came the installation of a Socialist government in South America. The state coup of September 11th, 1973 intervened; Belela divorced and lost her diplomatic immunity. “At that time, there were 10,000 foreign citizens in Chile. Most of them had been persecuted in their own countries.” It was necessary to negotiate for their guarantees as well as for the safety of the Chileans, all of them persecuted by the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. “I could not breathe at home because of all the people there, the ones we had to hide and the others who came to help.” Even though she lacked a university degree, she joined the United Nations High Committee for Refugees and managed to get political asylum for people from Chile, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Spain, El Salvador, Haiti, South Africa, Nicaragua, Panama and Bolivia. Belela Herrera, the current Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs of the government of President Tabaré Vásquez, opened the doors of many countries for numerous persecuted families, but her own country, Uruguay, closed its doors to her until 2004. “When they were opened for me, it was like those big iron doors from the past, with two policemen on each side, the doors that I entered looking for prisoners.”

The United Nations High Committee for Refugees Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs of Uruguay