MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay – Just two months ago, Uruguay welcomed six Guantanamo detainees for resettlement as a humanitarian gesture, and relations have already gotten a little testy.
One of the former prisoners complained in a TV interview last week that he and his five colleagues had given up one jail only to find themselves in another. Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, who spearheaded the plan to bring the men to this South American nation, shot back by questioning the men's willingness to work.
The men had been held for more than a dozen years at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba before they were brought to Montevideo in December. Mujica said they would be given help getting established in a country of 3.3 million people with a total Muslim population of perhaps 300.
The government has offered the former detainees a residential facility to study Spanish, learn about Uruguayan culture and integrate to their new home.
But Syrian refugee Abu Wa'el Dhiab raised a stir by complaining last week that the men have "walked out of a prison to enter another one." He also made a brief trip to neighboring Argentina saying he planned to ask that it give asylum to Guantanamo prisoners.
In the TV interview, Dhiab expressed thanks to Uruguayans for taking the men in, but said there should be a plan for helping the ex-detainees, who need "their families, a home, a job and some sort of income that allows them to build a future."
A labor union that has been helping the men said, however, that they have turned down job offers.
Mujica then visited the home where five of the six men are staying and asked them to start working. After his visit, the president said on his radio program that the former detainees are far from the ancestors of Uruguayans, who he said were gritty, hard-working immigrants.
"If these people were humble people of the desert, poor people, they'd surely be stronger and more primitive, but they're not," Mujica said of the former prisoners. "Through their hands, features and family histories, it seems to me that they're middle class."
Some opposition lawmakers have opposed the resettlement plan from the beginning, but one legislator, Sen. Ope Pasquet of the Colorado Party, defended the men Wednesday.
"The Guantanamo six were jailed for more than 10 years in dreadful conditions," he wrote on his Twitter account. "The psychological damage must be terrible. Making them work now? Premature."
The six men were detained as suspected militants with ties to al-Qaeda in 2002 but were never charged. They had been cleared for release since 2009 but could not be sent home and the U.S. struggled to find countries willing to take them.
While at Guantanamo, Dhiab was at the center of a legal battle in U.S. courts over the military's use of force-feeding. When he arrived in Uruguay, he was reportedly weak as a result of repeated hunger strikes. In recent videos, Dhiab appears thin but not overly so.
Since January 2002, when the Guantanamo detention center opened, about 620 prisoners have been released or transferred, with the vast majority making no public statements or appearances.