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The first left-wing government in Uruguay's history, whose election in 2004 brought to an end 170 years of domination by the country's two traditional parties, took office in March 2005. The government promptly set about calming investor fears by announcing its commitment to an economic stability package negotiated by the outgoing government with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). At the same time, the ruling Broad Front coalition, which ranges from Christian Democrats to former left-wing Tupamaro guerrillas, signaled its determination to circumvent a 1986 amnesty and prosecute civilian and military officials involved in the killings and "disappearances" of dozens of Uruguayans exiled in neighboring countries in the 1970s.
After gaining independence from Spain, the Oriental Republic of Uruguay was established in 1830. The Colorado Party dominated a relatively democratic political system throughout the 1960s. However, from 1973 to 1985, the country was under the control of a military regime whose viciousness and reputation for incarcerating the largest per capita number of political prisoners in the world earned Uruguay the nickname "The Torture Chamber of Latin America." A 1986 amnesty law, promoted by the new civilian president Colorado Julio Sanguinetti, himself the military's favored candidate in the elections held to restore democratic rule, granted members of the military immunity for human rights violations committed during the years of dictatorship. The law was extracted from the democratic transition's civilian leadership by the military as its price for returning to the barracks a year earlier.
In 1998, the country's other traditional party, the centrist National Party, which was wracked by mutual accusations of corruption, joined the opposition Colorado Party in supporting the latter's presidential nominee, Jorge Batlle Ibanez, a five-time presidential candidate and scion of a famous Colorado Party family. Faced with dismal economic prospects and a choice between presidential candidates representing the moderate right or an eclectic left, in 1999, Uruguayans gave Batlle 52 percent of the vote, to 40 percent obtained by Broad Front coalition standard-bearer Tabare Vazquez, an oncologist. The new president incorporated several National Party members into his cabinet.
Batlle immediately sought an honest accounting of the human rights situation under the former military regime, while showing equally firm determination to reduce spending and taxes and to privatize state monopolies. In 2001, crises in the rural sector and an increase in violent crime set off alarms in what was still one of Latin America's safest countries, as did growing labor unrest.
A currency devaluation and default in Argentina at the end of 2001 shrank Uruguay's international reserves 80 percent in six months, with the country losing its coveted investment-grade status on Wall Street. By mid-2002, the government was forced to impose a weeklong bank holiday, Uruguay's first in 70 years, to staunch a run on the country's banks. The spillover effect from Argentina's economic crisis lead to rioting and union-backed antigovernment protests in August that brought much of Montevideo to a standstill. In October, the National Party withdrew its members from Batlle's government.
Disputes with neighboring Brazil over regional free trade, and with Argentina over specific human rights issues festering since the 1970s, dominated Uruguay's political debate in 2003. The economy had shrunk by 11 percent in two years, and one of every three Uruguayans was left living below the poverty line in the worst economic crisis in the country's history. By 2004, average household income had shrunk about 30 percent in the previous five years. A bond restructuring that year avoided a potentially catastrophic economic default and was accompanied by a small economic rally.
On October 31, 2004, Uruguayans elected Vazquez-who captured over 50 percent of the vote in the first round of voting-president. The elections proved to be a crushing defeat for the Colorado Party, whose presidential candidate, Guillermo Stirling, won just 10 percent of the vote, as well as for the National Party and its standard-bearer, Jorge Larranaga, who garnered 34 percent. Vazquez's coalition also captured a majority of seats in both houses of congress in concurrent legislative elections, the first time in nearly 40 years that the president's party enjoyed a parliamentary majority; the results aligned Uruguay with a regional shift to the left.
As a candidate, Vazquez fiercely opposed the privatization of state companies and the shrinking of the state's role in Uruguay's economy while promising moderate economic policies and an emphasis on helping the poor. Faced with the challenge of creating a stable macroeconomic framework and attracting foreign capital, he chose as finance minister the economist Danilo Astori, who sought to reassure the private sector by promising clear rules for investors, a free-floating exchange rate, fiscal discipline, and an inflation-targeted monetary policy in a once-again growing economy. At the same time, the government attempted to bring business, unions, and other civil society organizations into the policy-making process in an attempt at "social inclusion." Government spending on education was increased to 4.5 percent of gross domestic product, and a $100 million "social emergency" program was enacted to aid the indigent and unemployed. However, tensions between the moderates dominating the economic team and the more radical wing of the Broad Front- former Tupamaros make up about one-third of the 68 deputies and senators of the parliamentary alliance-threatened to slow structural reform. Some analysts also worried about Uruguay's growing political and economic ties to Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and the renewal of diplomatic relations with Cuba, which Batlle severed in 2002 on human rights grounds.
More problematic was the government's willingness to reopen the issue of some 200 Uruguayans who disappeared during the military's political dominance in the 1970s, with some 170 of those having been abducted while in exile in Argentina. Unlike its neighbors, who also were ruled by military dictatorships during that time, Uruguay never had a legal accounting for the disappearances and other rights violations, nor was there an official effort to assay moral responsibility. During his inaugural address, Vazquez stated that neither the abduction of the daughter-in-law of famous Argentine poet Juan Gelman nor the murders of two Uruguayan political leaders and two Tupamaro sympathizers in Argentina were covered by the 1986 amnesty.
Following Vazquez's inauguration, human rights groups pressed to have the amnesty law strictly enforced to the letter, opening up the possibility for prosecutions for rights crimes committed before the 1973 coup, as well as for those done by Uruguayan security forces outside the country. In June 2005, charges of "aggravated homicide" were filed against former president Juan Maria Bordaberry, a military-backed puppet, and his foreign minister, for the 1976 kidnapping and murder of the two prominent exiled congressional leaders in Buenos Aires. Shortly thereafter, a military officers' group warned that attempts to upend the amnesty risked "exacerbating positions that translate into a confrontation that nobody desires and with unforeseeable eventual consequences." Government efforts to find the remains of missing activists were also stymied by instances of misinformation about their whereabouts offered by former and serving military officers.
In May 2005, the Broad Front extended its influence into important rural provinces for the first time, winning local elections in eight of the country's 19 provinces.
Citizens of Uruguay can change their government democratically. The 2004 elections were free and fair despite isolated acts of violence registered against several parties' local headquarters. The 1967 constitution established a bicameral congress consisting of the 99-member Chamber of Representatives and the 31-member Chamber of Senators, with every member serving a five-year term. The president is also directly elected for a five-year term. In 1999, for the first time, Uruguayan parties selected a single presidential candidate in open primary elections. Previously, the parties had fielded a number of candidates, and the candidates with the most votes then accumulated the votes cast for the others.
Major political parties and groupings include the Colorado Party; the Independent Party; the Movement of Popular Participation (MPP); the National (or Blanco) Party; the New Sector/Space Coalition; the Progressive Encounter/Broad Front coalition (EP-FA); the Socialist Party of Uruguay, and the Uruguayan Assembly.
The Transparency Law (Ley Cristal), which entered into force in January 1999, criminalizes a broad range of potential abuses of power by governmental officeholders, including the laundering of funds related to public corruption cases. It also requires financial disclosure statements to be filed by high-ranking officials. Public officials who know of a drug-related crime or incident and do nothing about it may be charged with a "crime of omission" under the Citizen Security Law. In September, the government announced that it had reached an important antinarcotics agreement with the United States, including tight controls on money laundering in what traditionally has been a bank secrecy haven. Uruguay was ranked 32 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Constitutional guarantees regarding free expression are generally respected, and violations of press freedom are rare in Uruguay. According to the Inter American Press Association, "After a year and a half of prosecutorial accusations and court rulings against journalists and the media, the higher courts have revoked almost all the lower court decisions against press freedom. Even more important than the actual decisions were the court arguments, which were based on cutting-edge legal writings on freedom of the press." The association goes on to say that President Tabare Vazquez's government "has not taken any actions against press freedom, other than verbal harassment by some members of his administration concerning news and criticism by the media and journalists." The press is privately owned, and broadcasting is both commercial and public. Numerous daily newspapers publish, many associated with political parties; there are also a number of weeklies. There are no government restrictions on the internet.
Freedom of religion is a cherished political tenet of democratic Uruguay and is broadly respected. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
Freedom of assembly and association is provided for by law in Uruguay, and the government generally respects these rights in practice. Civic organizations have proliferated since the return of civilian rule. Numerous women's rights groups focus on violence against women, societal discrimination, and other problems. Workers exercise their right to join unions, bargain collectively, and hold strikes. Unions are well organized and politically powerful. Strikes are sometimes marked by violent clashes and sabotage.
The judiciary is relatively independent but has become increasingly inefficient in the face of escalating crime, particularly street violence and organized crime. The court system is severely backlogged, and suspects under arrest often spend more time in jail than they would were they to be convicted and serve the maximum sentence for their crime. Allegations of police mistreatment, particularly of youthful offenders, have increased. However, prosecutions of such acts are also occurring more frequently. Prison conditions do not meet international standards.
The small black minority continues to face discrimination. Uruguay's continuing economic crisis has forced thousands of formerly middle-class citizens to join rural migrants in the shantytowns ringing Montevideo.
Violence against women continues to be a problem. Women enjoy equal rights under the law but face traditional discriminatory attitudes and practices, including salaries averaging about two-thirds those of men. As of the end of 2005, no gender discrimination cases had ever reached a courtroom. On a positive note, 60 percent of public university students are women. The government generally protects children's rights and welfare and has made the education and health of children a top priority.