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President Tabare Vazquez’s Frente Amplio (Broad Front) coalition, which held a majority in both chambers of parliament, continued in 2006 to address the issue of human rights violations during the period of military rule (1973–85) while working to implement ambitious economic and social reforms.
After gaining independence from Spain, the Oriental Republic of Uruguay was established in 1830. The ensuing decades brought a series of revolts, civil conflicts, and incursions by neighboring states, followed by a period of relative stability in the first half of the twentieth century. The rival Colorado and Blanco parties vied for political power in the 1950s and 1960s, but economic troubles and an insurgency by the leftist Tupamaro National Liberation Front led to a military takeover by 1973. From that year until 1985, the country was under the control of a military regime whose viciousness and reputation for incarcerating the largest proportion of political prisoners per capita in the world earned Uruguay the nickname “The Torture Chamber of Latin America.”
The military era came to an end with elections held in 1984, in which Julio Maria Sanguinetti of the Colorado Party won the presidency. A 1986 amnesty law promoted by the new civilian president, who had been the military’s favored candidate, granted members of the armed forces immunity for human rights violations committed during the years of dictatorship. The military extracted the concession as its price for allowing the democratic transition the year before.
In the next general election, held in November 1989, Luis Herrera of the centrist National (or Blanco) Party was elected president. The 1990s were marked by relative economic stability and prosperity. The Colorados won in both 1994 and 1999, with the latter election a close runoff between Colorado candidate Jorge Batlle and oncologist Tabare Vazquez, the standard-bearer of the leftist Frente Amplio (Broad Front) coalition. Batlle brought 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 economy and an increase in violent crime, as well as growing labor unrest, set off alarms in what was still one of Latin America’s safest countries.
A currency devaluation and default in Argentina at the end of 2001 diminished Uruguay’s international reserves by 80 percent in six months, and the country lost its coveted investment-grade status among leading financial ratings agencies. By mid-2002, the government was forced to impose a weeklong bank holiday, Uruguay’s first in 70 years, to stanch a run on the country’s banks. The spillover from Argentina’s economic crisis led 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 scene 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 amid the worst economic crisis in the country’s history. By 2004, average household income had shrunk by about 30 percent over the previous five years. A bond restructuring that year avoided a potentially catastrophic default and was accompanied by a small economic rally.
In October 2004, Uruguayans elected Vazquez in the first round of voting for 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 Parliament in concurrent legislative elections, marking 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. Municipal elections held in May 2005 consolidated the Broad Front’s increasing power, with the coalition maintaining control of Montevideo and winning in other major constituencies.
As a candidate, Vazquez had 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 Danilo Astori, an economist who sought to reassure the private sector by promising clear rules for investors, a floating exchange rate, fiscal discipline, and an inflation-targeted monetary policy in a once-again growing economy. At the same time, the government moved to bring business, unions, and other civil society organizations into the policy-making process in an attempt at “social inclusion.” However, tensions between the moderates dominating the economic team and the more radical wing of the Broad Front threatened to slow structural reform. Some analysts also expressed concern about Uruguay’s growing political and economic ties to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and Vazquez’s renewal of diplomatic relations with Cuba, which Batlle had 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, which were also 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 more literally enforced, opening up the possibility of prosecutions for crimes committed before the 1973 coup, as well as for those committed 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 exiled congressional leaders in Buenos Aires. Shortly thereafter, a military officers’ group warned that attempts to undermine 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 by former and serving military officers.
In 2006, the Vazquez administration continued to press the issue of human rights. While it did not repeal the 1986 amnesty law, which protects military officers from prosecution, a reinterpretation of the law allowed for higher-level officers to be tried. The prospect of repealing or changing the amnesty law prompted 10 former generals to write an open letter to the government in May 2006 taking full responsibility for human rights violations after the 1973 coup, in an attempt to protect subordinates from any criminal proceedings. In September, two former police chiefs and four army leaders were arrested for human rights violations committed during the 1973–1985 period. Furthermore, army chief General Carlos Diaz was dismissed by Vazquez in October, a long-anticipated move resulting in part from the general’s strong opposition to investigating the crimes of the military regime.
In November 2006, Uruguay fully repaid its IMF obligations, thereby terminating the government’s IMF agreement. However, economic officials have pledged to continue the agreement’s goals of fiscal constraint, low inflation, and structural reform.
Uruguay is an electoral democracy. The last elections in 2004 were free and fair despite isolated acts of violence against several parties’ local headquarters. The 1967 constitution established a bicameral General Assembly consisting of the 99-member House of Representatives and the 30-member Senate, with every member serving five-year terms. The president is also directly elected for a five-year term. In 1999, for the first time, Uruguayan parties selected their presidential candidates in open primary elections. Previously, the parties had each fielded a number of candidates, and the candidate with the most votes in each party then accumulated the votes cast for his intraparty rivals. The next national elections are scheduled for 2009.
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 came into force in January 1999, criminalizes a broad range of potential abuses of power by government officeholders, including the laundering of funds related to public corruption cases. It also requires high-ranking officials to file financial disclosure statements. 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 2005, the government announced that it had reached an important antinarcotics agreement with the United States, including tight controls on money laundering in a country previously known as a bank-secrecy haven. Uruguay was ranked 28 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Constitutional guarantees regarding free expression are generally respected, and violations of press freedom are rare in Uruguay. The Inter American Press Association has praised the country’s higher courts for overturning rulings against the media and employing progressive legal arguments in defense of press freedom. However, the association has noted some verbal harassment by members of President Tabare Vazquez’s administration in response to criticism from the media. The press is privately owned, and broadcasting includes both commercial and public outlets. Numerous daily newspapers publish, many of them associated with political parties; there are also a number of weeklies. The government does not place restrictions on internet usage.
Freedom of religion is a cherished political tenet of democratic Uruguay and is broadly respected. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
Rights to freedom of assembly and association are provided for by law in Uruguay, and the government generally respects these 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 if convicted of the offense in question and sentenced to the maximum prison term. 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. The 2002-2003 economic recession as well as general structural dislocation has forced thousands of formerly middle-class citizens to join rural migrants in the shantytowns surrounding Montevideo. While the squalid conditions of these shantytowns remain a significant problem, Vásquez launched a $200 million National Social Emergency Plan shortly after taking office to provide social assistance to Uruguayans living in extreme poverty.
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 2006, 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.