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More than halfway through his five-year mandate, President Tabare Vazquez’s Frente Amplio (Broad Front) coalition continued in 2008 to address the issue of human rights violations during the period of military rule (1973–85). Meanwhile, progress on potentially unpopular structural economic reforms was stalled by leftist elements within his coalition ahead of the 2009 presidential and legislative elections.
After gaining independence from Spain, the 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 20th 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 reputation for incarcerating the largest proportion of political prisoners per capita in the world earned Uruguaythe nickname “The Torture Chamber of Latin America.”
The military era came to an end after 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 Lacalle of the 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 Tabare Vazquez of the leftist Frente Amplio (Broad Front) coalition.
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 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 caused a dramatic drop in foreign exchange reserves and the loss of Uruguay’s 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 crisisled to union-backed antigovernment protests that brought much of Montevideo to a standstill. By 2004, average household income had shrunk by about 30 percent over the previous five years in what became the worst economic crisis in the country’s history. A bond restructuring that year prevented a potentially catastrophic default and was accompanied by a small economic rally.
In October 2004, Uruguayans elected Vazquez as president in the first round of voting, dealing a crushing blow to the Colorado Party. 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. Faced with the challenge of creating a stable macroeconomic framework and attracting foreign capital, Vazquez began his term by implementing a floating exchange rate, fiscal discipline, and an inflation-targeted monetary policy in a once-again growing economy. While considered a center-left moderate, Vazquez’s ties to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and a blocked Uruguayan attempt to buy arms from Iran in 2007 raised concerns in Washington. In 2008, Vazquez continued to be a politically moderate leader even as elements within his coalition endorsed more statist and protectionist development models endorsed by Chavez.
Vazquez proved willing to reopen the issue of some 200 Uruguayans who disappeared during the military’s political dominance in the 1970s. In his inaugural address, he stated that neither the abduction of the daughter-in-law of famous Argentine poet Juan Gelman nor the murders of two Uruguayan political leaders were covered by the 1986 amnesty law. 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. In November 2006, former president Juan Maria Bordaberry, a military-backed puppet, and his foreign minister Juan Carlos Blanco were charged for the 1976 kidnapping and murder of the two parliamentary leaders. Warrents for their arrest were issued, and in 2008, a Uruguayan federal appeals court confirmed the charges of multiple murders against Bordaberry. In August 2008, Uruguay’s Office of the Prosecutor requested an extended sentence for Blanco based on new charges regarding the forced disappearance of a kidnapped teacher in 1976; the case was pending at year’s end.
Under its reinterpretation of the 1986 amnesty law, which allowed for higher-level officers to be tried, the administration arrested several police chiefs and army leaders in 2006 and 2007 for human rights violations committed during military rule, while Vazquez dismissed an army chief known for his opposition to investigating military crimes. The government’s investigation into those disappeared in the dirty war included excavating military barracks where victims were suspected to be buried. In December 2007, a former military dictator Gregorio Alvarez was jailed for the abduction of political opponents committed during the military rule. In 2008, the Vazquez government continued to investigate human rights violations committed during the military dictatorship, though no further arrests were made during the year.
Uruguay fully repaid its International Monetary Fund (IMF) obligations in November 2006, thereby terminating the government’s IMF agreement. Economic officials have nevertheless pledged to continue the agreement’s goals of fiscal restraint, low inflation, and structural reform. In July 2007, a revenue-neutral tax reform that introduced a personal income tax and simplified the tax system came into effect. However, tensions between the moderates dominating the economic team and the more left-leaning wing of the Broad Front threatened to slow structural reform. For example, pressures from unions forced the government to shelve plans to negotiate a free trade agreement with the United States in 2007. Progress on structural economic reform was stalled in 2008 as Congressional leaders steered away from potentially unpopular and divisive economic measures ahead of the October 2009 presidential and congressional elections.
Uruguay is an electoral democracy. The 2004 elections were free and fair. The 1967 constitution established a bicameral General Assembly consisting of the 99-member House of Representatives and the 30-member Senate, with all members serving five-year terms. The president is directly elected for a single five-year term. The next presidential and congressional elections will be held in October 2009, with a primary in June 2009.
The major political parties and groupings are the Colorado Party, the Independent Party, the National (or Blanco) Party, and the ruling Broad Front coalition. The latter includes the Movement of Popular Participation (MPP), the New Space Party, the Socialist Party, and the Uruguayan Assembly, among other factions.
The Transparency Law (Ley Cristal) criminalizes a broad range of potential abuses of power by officeholders, including the laundering of funds related to public corruption cases. In 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 23 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index, second only to Chile in Latin America.
Constitutional guarantees regarding free expression are generally respected, and violations of press freedom are rare. 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, and the government generally observes these in practice. Civic organizations have proliferated since the return of civilian rule. Numerous women’s rights groups focus on problems such as violence against women and societal discrimination. Workers exercise their right to join unions, bargain collectively, and hold strikes. Unions are well organized and politically powerful. A general strike was staged on August 20, 2008 demanding higher real wage increases; the strike closed most public offices, schools, and commercial banks. Wage negotiations were completed by Uruguay’s wage councils—the collective bargaining entities comprising representatives from the business sector, the government, and the unions.
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 pretrial detainees 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. Prisons, which are overcrowded, were at 128 percent capacity in 2008. Many prisoners rely on visitors for food, and medical care is substandard. According to a 2008 Honorary Anti-Tuberculosis Commission report, 35 percent of Uruguay’s prison population has tuberculosis.
The small black minority, comprising an estimated 9 percent of the population, continues to face discrimination and economic difficulties. Violence against women also remains 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 2008, no gender discrimination cases had ever reached a courtroom, and violence against women wason the rise. On a positive note, women hold 15 parliamentary seats, and 4 of the 13 cabinet members are women. In December 2007, Congress approved gay civil unions, making Uruguay the first South American country to approve these rights nationwide.