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Jose Mujica of the ruling center-left Broad Front (FA) coalition emerged as the victor in Uruguay’s November 2009 presidential run-off elections, defeating former president Luis Lacalle. Mr. Mujica’s victory was helped by the continued popularity of the FA government, brought about by Uruguay’s economic growth. The ruling FA government maintained its parliamentary majority. Separately, Tabare Vazquez’sgovernment continued investigations into atrocities committed during the military dictatorship of 1973 to 1985.
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. Jorge Batlle of the Colorado party was elected president in 1999. He 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 unprecedented economic insecurity. 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.
In October 2004, Uruguayans elected Tabare Vazquez of the Broad Front (FA) coalition 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, 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.
Uruguay fully repaid its International Monetary Fund (IMF) obligations in November 2006. Nevertheless, the Vazquez administration has continued its commitment to economic orthodoxy. In 2007, a revenue-neutral tax reform that introduced a personal income tax and simplified the tax system came into effect. Aided by increased commodity prices, in his five years as president, Vazquez has tripled foreign investment, maintained steady inflation, reduced poverty from 37 to 26 percent of the population, and cut unemployment in half.
Vazquez has proved willing to reopen the issue of some 200 Uruguayans who disappeared during the military’s political dominance in the 1970s, or Uruguay’s dirty war. 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 the military dictatorship. The government’s investigation into those who disappeared in the dirty war included excavating military barracks where victims were suspected to be buried. In November 2006, former president Juan Maria Bordaberry was charged for the 1976 kidnapping and murder of two parliamentary leaders. A federal appeals court in 2008 confirmed the multiple murder charges against Bordaberry, but he was still awaiting trial at the end of 2009.
Former military dictator Gregorio Alvarez was arrested in December 2007 for abducting political opponents during the military rule. In October 2009, Alvarez was sentenced to 25 years in prison for murder and human rights violations. Still, most human rights violations cases are left in impunity. While the Supreme Court declared the amnesty law unconstitutional in mid-October, voters rejected a referendum several days later that would have overturned amnesty for those accused of human rights abuses during the military regime.
Helped by the ongoing popularity of President Vazquez, Jose Mujica of the ruling FA coalition won the run-off presidential election held in November 2009 with more than 53 percent of the vote. Mr. Mujica, a socialist senator who spent 14 years in prison for waging a guerilla movement against the military regime, beat his top challenger, Luis Lacalle, former president and candidate of the conservative National (or Blanco) Party. The FA coalition maintained its majority in parliament.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Uruguay is an electoral democracy. The 2009 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 major political parties and groupings are the Colorado Party, the Independent Party, the Blanco Party, and the ruling FA 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 25 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
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. In June 2009, Congress approved a bill eliminating criminal penalties for defamation of public officials.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. Wage negotiations are completed by Uruguay’s wage councils—the collective bargaining entities comprising representatives from the business sector, the government, and the unions.
Uruguay’s judiciary is relatively independent. However, 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. Overcrowded prisons reached almost 130 percent capacity in 2009, and violence among inmates remained a problem. Medical care for prisoners is substandard, and many rely on visitors for food.
The small black minority, comprising an estimated 9 percent of the population, continues to face economic difficulties. Official estimates state that 50 percent of Afro-Uruguayans are poor and suffer from discrimination.
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 2009, no gender discrimination cases had ever reached a courtroom. Violence against women remains a problem and wason the rise in 2009. On a positive note, women hold 15 parliamentary seats, and 4 of the 13 cabinet members are women. Congress approved gay civil unions in 2007, making Uruguay the first South American country to approve these rights nationwide.