Uruguay, like Chile, fell under military control in 1973. Until then, both countries had been admired for their strong democratic institutions—Uruguay having earned such nicknames as “the Switzerland of America” and “the Sweden of the South.” Unlike Chile and Argentina, however, whose transitions to military rule occurred suddenly on dates etched in collective memory, Uruguay’s descent into dictatorship was long and drawn out. Another important difference is that whereas fewer people died in Uruguay than in either Chile or Argentina, Uruguay had a larger percentage of political prisoners—more per capita than in any other country in the world. Under military rule, the one-time “Switzerland of America” was transformed into what Eduardo Galeano would call “a vast torture chamber.”
   Traditionally, Uruguay has been ruled by two political parties: the Colorados (Reds) and the Blancos (Whites). In 1903 the progressive José Batlle y Ordóñez, a Colorado, was elected president, and during his two terms in office (1903–1907 and 1911–1915), he transformed the country into a welfare state—the first in Latin America. He enacted labor reforms such as the eight-hour workday, the right to strike, and workmen’s compensation. He passed social legislation, legalizing divorce and advancing the rights of women. And he nationalized important industries such as utilities, banking, insurance, and transportation. His actions and policies increased the standard of living. In 1929 the death of Batlle y Ordóñez and the start of the Great Depression brought dissension in both parties as well as economic crisis. The situation resulted in a coup, the first in Uruguay in the 20th century—the second would come in 1973. On 31 March 1933 President Gabriel Terra dissolved parliament and altered the constitution. By 1938, however, elections were allowed, and by 1942, the changes to the constitution were reversed. Although the period from 1933 to 1942 could be described as a dictatorship, it was a dictatorship of politicians, not of the military. The dictatorial interlude (known as the dictablanda, or “soft” dictatorship) was free of torture, execution, and political prisoners, and there was little censorship. Constitutional rule returned as quietly as it left, bringing with it the civil liberties, distributive policies, and stability that characterized the Batlle y Ordóñez years.
   This stability was financed by the robust export economy the country enjoyed during World War II and the Korean War. By the early 1950s Uruguay—then a prosperous, middle-class welfare state—had reached the height of what many consider its golden age. Eager to share in the spoils, the Blancos joined forces with the Colorados in realizing a dream of Batlle y Ordóñez’s—a completely collegial executive, which guaranteed the Blancos a share of executive power. A new constitution, promulgated in 1952, eliminated the office of president and packed all executive functions into a nine-member Colegiado-six seats for the winning party, three for the runner-up. The new constitution also legitimized a patronage system begun in 1931 by what was jocularly known as the Pacto de Chinchulín (Pork Barrel Pact), which ensured each party a share in public employment. By the mid-1950s declining exports and a poor domestic economy contributed to economic stagnation, which would play an important role in the coming social unrest and military intervention. In 1958 the economic crisis, combined with strong antiurban sentiment among ranchers and farmers, helped the Blancos accomplish what had eluded them for 93 years—victory in a national election. It was widely hoped that a change in the majority party would return the country to happier days. What the change actually meant was that the Blancos would be entitled to a larger share of a dwindling amount of patronage. The economy continued to stagnate under new leadership, and although the Blancos won the next presidential election in 1962, they did so by a much smaller margin than in 1958. The Colegiado was widely blamed for the crisis, and people began to clamor for a president—for a strong leader who could take decisive action. The election of 1966 included a plebiscite that returned the country to a presidential system, abolishing the Colegiado. It created an Office of Planning and Budget and gave the president control over the economy. The election also returned the Colorados to power in the form of a right-wing faction led by Oscar Gestido, a retired general. President Gestido died within a year, and Jorge Pacheco Areco, his vice president, succeeded him. President Pacheco Areco faced a worsening economy, labor unrest, and the exploits of an urban guerrilla group called the Tupamaros. He used his executive powers to repress opposition, arguing that constitutional liberties had to be sacrificed in the name of internal order. Labor leaders and other activists were arrested, and there were reports of beatings and torture. Many legislators objected to the strong measures, but the threat of military intervention on Pacheco’s behalf forced them to back down. The Tupamaros, officially known as the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional (MLN, Movement for National Liberation), increased their activities in response to the harsh campaign waged against them by Pacheco. Formed in 1963, the Tupamaros spent the first few years carrying out operations of the Robin Hood variety. In 1969, however, they turned to the main task—to undermine the government. Despite taking their guerrilla warfare to the next level, they managed to retain public support until 1970, when they executed Daniel Mitrione. Mitrione, a retired police chief from Muncie, Indiana, was a police advisor provided through the United States Agency for International Development (AID). According to the Tupamaros and others, he was also an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and a torture instructor. Abducted on 31 July, he was found dead on 8 August after the government refused to fulfill the terms of his ransom—the release of all guerrilla prisoners.
   The Mitrione killing not only tarnished the Tupamaros’ image but also escalated the government’s campaign against them, an escalation that led to the capture of many guerrillas within the following year. The imprisoned guerrillas responded by staging a dramatic escape on 9 September 1971, freeing 106 of their comrades. The Tupamaros released a prisoner of their own, Sir Geoffrey Jackson, the British ambassador to Uruguay, whom they had abducted eight months earlier. For the government, the prison breakout was embarrassing and came at the worst possible time. Not only was the national election only two months away, it was an election in which the dominant parties faced their first serious challenger, a left-wing coalition endorsed by the Tupamaros.
   The Frente Amplio (Broad Front) coalition comprised the Communists, the Christian Democrats, the Socialists, and two leftist factions from the Colorados and Blancos. Although the Frente’s presidential candidate, Liber Seregni, a retired general, was not a Marxist, the coalition’s leftist platform appealed to the Tupamaros, who participated in the election through a front organization. A Gallup poll in August had predicted a close race among the three major contestants. On election day, the Colorados narrowly defeated the Blancos, and both parties gained more than twice as many votes as the Frente. The new Colorado president, a wealthy rancher named Juan María Bordaberry, took office on 1 March 1972 for a fiveyear term. A former member of Pacheco’s cabinet, Bordaberry was determined to continue the previous president’s campaign against the Tupamaros. But first he had to get past Congress, which objected to the intensity of the campaign. Meanwhile, the Tupamaros ended the informal truce they had called a month before the election. On 14 April 1972 they assassinated several government officials throughout Montevideo. Congress granted Bordaberry’s request for a declaration of a “state of internal war”—but only for 30 days. Suspending all constitutional liberties, “internal war” essentially amounted to martial law. Thirty days later, Congress extended the decree for 45 days following much spirited debate. By June the internal war had become so intense that Congress—over the objections of the Frente representatives—extended the decree indefinitely.
   The state of internal war meant that the military was in full control of antiguerrilla operations, essentially allowed to combat subversion as it saw fit. By the middle of 1972 the guerrilla movement was in disarray, most of its members either in jail or in exile. The international press reported very few guerrilla casualties (about 30) but many guerrilla prisoners (about 1,600 in August). Charges had began to surface that prisoners were regularly tortured, reports that led the Uruguayan Roman Catholic Church in June to issue a 16-point declaration urging a return to peace. Not only did the government ignore the plea to reverse its course toward militarization but also the military, now politicized, began the long process of taking full control of the government.
   The coup stretched out over a four-month period. The first step began on 12 February 1973 when officers from the army and air force rebelled against President Bordaberry, insisting that the military be given a voice in setting national policy. Bordaberry was allowed to remain president but was instructed to create a Consejo de Seguridad Nacional (COSENA, National Security Council), which would be dominated by the military and would oversee policy. Next, the military took aim at Congress. It viewed the body as obstructionist and was especially angered by the refusal of Congress to lift the immunity of Senator Enrique Erro, whom it charged with aiding and abetting the Tupamaros. Erro had also voted for an investigation into the alleged use of torture by the military. On 27 June 1973 Bordaberry, with the support of the military, dissolved Congress and replaced it with the Council of State, which was composed of 25 appointed civilians. He also dissolved the communist-controlled Convención Nacional de Trabajadores (CNT, National Convention of Workers), which had called a general strike to protest the closing of Congress. The CNT, ignoring the order to dissolve, continued to strike. Students joined workers in an angry demonstration that racked Montevideo for two weeks. The police and military finally quashed the uprising, making mass arrests of demonstrators as well as labor and political leaders, among them General Liber Seregni.
   With the Tupamaros defeated, Congress closed, and the labor movement destroyed, the military consolidated its rule. It banned leftist political parties, took control of the university and secondary schools, and silenced the press. It then turned its attention to the economy, adopting a free-market approach like that taken by the military government in Brazil. Although the military was now firmly established, Uruguay was still, technically, a civilian dictatorship, since a constitutionally elected president remained in office. In June 1976 the military removed this pretense, deposing Bordaberry and suspending national elections. The newly created Council of the Nation (composed of the Council of State and the 21-member Junta of Generals) was charged with appointing the president and formulating general policy. Executive power resided in COSENA (composed of the president, his ministers, and the commanders of the three armed services). Meanwhile, thousands of Uruguayans lost their political rights, forbidden from taking part in political activity or from holding office. This group included those who had been put on trial for political crimes or had participated in the elections of 1966 and 1971 as either office holders or candidates.
   In July 1976 the Council of the Nation elected Dr. Aparicio Méndez Manfredini to the presidency for a five-year term. By this time, plans were under way for a gradual return of the country to civilian government—but on the military’s terms. Repression, however, continued. Human-rights groups estimated the number of political prisoners to have reached 6,000. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Uruguayans had fled the country, many of them academics and artists. In August 1977 the government announced its cronograma (timetable), which called for a plebiscite in November 1980 on a constitution drafted by the military. The draft constitution permitted the military to intervene in civilian governments—to suspend constitutional liberties in the name of national security. The draft also severely limited the authority of a legislative body to lift a state of emergency and allowed for the trying of civilians in military courts. If approved, the new constitution would write into law the extralegal acts committed by the dictatorship. On 30 November 1980 the constitution was rejected by 57 percent of the voters.
   The military, repudiated, settled in for a lengthy negotiation toward civilian rule. In September 1981 General Gregorio Alvarez Armellino became president, and the government announced a new cronograma. The plan called for the reorganization of political parties, the drafting of a new constitution by party leaders and the military, a vote on the constitution in a combined plebiscite election in November 1984, and finally the transition to a civilian government on 1 March 1985. The party reorganization, however, was subject to guidelines set down in a law passed by the Council of State on 3 June 1982. The law banned Marxist parties as well as parties that had made up the Frente Amplio in 1971. The only parties allowed were the Colorados, the Blancos, and a Christian-democratic party called Unión Cívica (Civic Union). The election held in November 1982 to determine party leadership delivered another serious blow to the military. Not only did antimilitary candidates win by a landslide; the top vote getter was Wilson Ferreira Aldunate (“Wilson”), a charismatic Blanco leader.
   Rebuffed again, the military employed a delaying tactic, not entering into negotiations until well into 1983. But talks with the opposition parties broke down in July over the issue of national security. The military continued to insist on a national security council, which would allow the generals to intervene in a civilian government and to try civilians in military courts. In September the generals banned all political activity and in late October announced that they would bring a constitution to a vote in November 1984 as scheduled—with or without negotiations. The three legal parties, forming a coalition called the Interpartidaria, responded to this pressure by applying pressure of their own, organizing demonstrations that continued into the following year. The demonstrations were met in turn by continued government force, which added new political prisoners to the hundreds remaining in detention. Popular unrest was increased by a rapidly declining economy—the country in the midst of a deep recession. The labor movement, reorganized, joined the fray. A new (but illegal) confederation, the Plenario Intersindical de Trabajadores (PIT, Interunion Plenary of Workers), supported the demonstrators and applied additional pressure in the form of work stoppages and demands for higher pay. It was also in late 1983 that the opposition gained an important international ally. Raúl Alfonsín, the newly elected president of Argentina, made it clear to Uruguay that it should join his country in a return to civilian rule.
   By 1984 the military, politically isolated, was eager for a negotiated exit. In anticipation of the elections scheduled for later that year, it passed a law that restored legal status to all leftist parties except the communists. With this move, the generals were determined to avoid a repeat of the 1983 party election, when leftists, unable to slate their own candidates, cast their votes for Wilson. Political tensions increased on 16 June 1984 when Wilson himself returned to Uruguay after 11 years in exile. He was immediately arrested. When talks resumed in July, the Blancos boycotted negotiations in protest of their jailed leader. The remaining opposition parties, negotiating from a position of strength, won important concessions. Most notably, the military dropped its demand for a national security council in return for representation on an advisory body. Despite these gains, Wilson remained in jail (though he was released five days after the election), and neither he nor Seregni would be allowed to run for office. The Colorados won a narrow victory in the November 1984 elections, receiving 41 percent of the vote. The Blancos received 35 percent; the Frente Amplio, 22 percent; and Unión Cívica, 2 percent. Each party was awarded a proportional number of seats in a newly installed legislature. The leading Colorado candidate, Julio María Sanguinetti, became president. According to schedule, he was inaugurated on 1 March 1985.
   By the end of March 1985, Congress passed an amnesty law that released all political prisoners. About 200 prisoners received a general amnesty; the sentences of about 60 others—those who had participated in assassination and kidnapping—were commuted following reviews by civilian courts. One of those receiving a commuted sentence was Raúl Sendic Antonaccio, the founder of the Tupamaros. President Sanguinetti approved of the distinction, arguing that those convicted of violent acts were being released, not out of forgiveness, but in the interest of peace and national reconciliation. In 1985 Congress established the Comisión Investigadora Parlamentaria sobre Situación de Personas Desaparecidas y Hechos que la Motivaron (Commission on the Situation of “Disappeared” People and Its Causes), which documented 164 disappearances, many of whom (about 130) disappeared in Argentina, Chile, or Paraguay, presumably victims of Operation Condor. (Project Disappeared now puts the Uruguayan figure at about 300.) The commission’s charge did not allow it to investigate illegal detention or torture.
   Sanguinetti adopted the “theory of the two demons,” which held the guerrillas and the military equally responsible for the violence. He argued that, for the sake of national reconciliation, the military should be granted an amnesty as well, pointing out that the number of missing (desaparecidos) was much smaller in Uruguay than in Argentina-about 170 as opposed to 9,000 to 30,000, though allegations of torture numbered in the thousands. In August 1986 the government proposed legislation that would grant an amnesty to all military and police personnel accused of human-rights abuses. The opposition parties rejected the draft legislation but on 22 December approved a revised version (Punto Final) that blocked human-rights trials and placed the responsibility for further investigations on the president. The law provoked widespread opposition from human-rights groups, torture victims, civil-rights lawyers, center-left political parties, trade unions, and students. In February 1987 they began a campaign to collect signatures from 25 percent of the registered voters, the number that the constitution required to force a referendum on legislation. Needing at least 555,701 signatures, by December they had collected 634,702, despite opposition to the process from the military and elites. It was not until the end of 1988, however, that the electoral court completed its charge of verifying signatures.
   The referendum was scheduled for 16 April 1989. Sanguinetti campaigned in favor of the amnesty, arguing that dredging up the past would provoke a coup. Opponents of the legislation argued that the only basis for democracy is justice. In the end, the amnesty law, called Ley de Caducidad (Impunity Law) was upheld by 53 percent of the voters, though people in Montevideo and young people throughout the country voted strongly against it.
   Although the amnesty remained in effect, one of its clauses supplied an opening for human-rights activism. Article 4 directed the government to determine the fate of the disappeared, including the 12 children kidnapped with their parents or born in prison and illegally adopted by military families. Over the next 15 years, however, despite protests and petitions, three democratic administrations ignored the mandate. Not until March 2000, with the inauguration of President Jorge Batlle Ibáñez, did investigations begin. Almost as soon as he took office, Batlle Ibáñez led the search for the granddaughter of the Argentine poet Juan Gelman. She had been born 24 years before in a Uruguayan prison. Within a month, Gelman and his granddaughter were reunited. In August Batlle Ibáñez created the Comisión para la Paz (Peace Commission), whose charge was to uncover the fate of the missing and to share this information with victims’ relatives. Led by Archbishop Nicolás Cotugno, the commission issued a preliminary report in October 2002. It found evidence that the military dictatorship had been responsible for the disappearance of 26 Uruguayans. All the victims were alleged to have died under torture and been cremated, their ashes thrown into the Atlantic Ocean.
   In March 2005 President Tabaré Vázquez, a 65-year-old physician, took office. Leading a left-wing coalition that included former Tupamaros, he acted on a campaign promise to reopen human-rights cases. By July, former President Bordaberry and his foreign minister, Juan Blanco, were charged in connection with the murders of the Uruguayan legislators Zelmar Michelini and Héctor Gutiérrez, who had fled to Argentina when Congress was closed and political parties were banned. Murdered along with them were two suspected guerrillas, William Whitelaw and Rosario Barredo. The murders have since been attributed to Operation Condor. The charge against Bordaberry and Blanco was aggravated homicide—a charge meant to circumvent the amnesty still in effect. They were arrested in November 2006, and the case is being litigated.

Historical Dictionary of the “Dirty Wars” . . 2010.

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