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Uruguay finally annulled the country’s long-standing amnesty for members of the 1973-85 dictatorship in November 2011. President José Mujica, who lost standing within his Frente Amplio coalition due in part to his indecisive handling of the issue, also struggled to push forward a proposal to increase taxes on large landholdings.
After gaining independence first from Spain and then later Brazil, the Republic of Uruguay was established in 1828. 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 Tupamaros National Liberation Front led to a military takeover in 1973. For the next 22 years, the country remained under the control of a military regime whose 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 after the 1984 elections, in which Julio María Sanguinetti of the Colorado Party won the presidency. Sanguinetti, the military’s favored candidate, promoted a 1986 amnesty law—also known as the “Expiry Law”—which 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.
The 1990s were marked by relative economic stability and prosperity. Dr. Jorge Batlle of the Colorado party, who was elected president in 1999, 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.
In October 2004, Tabaré Vázquez of the Broad Front (FA) coalition was elected president in the first round of voting, dealing a crushing blow to the Colorado Party. Vázquez’s coalition also captured a majority of seats in both houses of parliament in concurrent legislative elections. Vázquez began his term by implementing a floating exchange rate, fiscal discipline, and an inflation-targeted monetary policy in a growing economy. His administration also introduced a personal income tax in 2007. Aided by increased commodity prices, Vázquez tripled foreign investment, maintained steady inflation, reduced poverty, and cut unemployment in half.
In October 2009 parliamentary elections, the FA coalition won slim majorities in both houses, securing 16 of 30 seats in the Senate and 50 of 99 seats in the Chamber of Representatives. Aided by Vázquez’s ongoing popularity, José Mujica of the FA coalition was elected president in November 2009. Mujica, a socialist senator who spent 14 years in prison for waging a guerilla movement against the military regime, focused his first year on national reconciliation and maintaining moderate policies. Mujica’s diverse FA coalition complicated reform efforts during his first two years in office, as the president aimed to appease the multiple elements of his coalition, as well as the right-leaning opposition. Public disagreement between Mujica and Vice President Danilo Astori delayed the administration’s controversial proposal to tax large land holdings. The bill was finally sent to Congress on August 22, but had not been debated by year’s end.
Uruguay’s efforts to bring to justice those responsible for human rights violations committed during its military regime have been inconsistent and at times contradictory. The 1986 amnesty law gives the executive rather than the judicial branch final say over what cases can be tried. A majority of Uruguayans have supported the amnesty, and voted to maintain it in two separate referenda in 1989 and 2009. However, recent administrations and court rulings have undermined its reach, reinterpreting the law to allow for higher-level officers to be tried. Since the FA coalition took office in 2005, an estimated twenty former military officers have been tried and convicted. Former military dictator Gregorio Álvarez was convicted in October 2009 of abducting political opponents and for 37 counts of murder during the period of military rule and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. In February 2010, former president Juan María Bordaberry received a 30-year prison sentence for the 1976 kidnapping and murder of two parliamentary leaders; he died in July 2011 while under house-arrest.
Notwithstanding these convictions, lawmakers continued to push to eliminate the amnesty bill, especially in light of the February 2011 Inter-American Court ruling that Uruguay should investigate alleged crimes from its dirty war. After failing to overturn the law in a close parliamentary vote in May 2011, both houses of parliament voted to nullify the law in October. Despite going against popular opinion, Mujica signed the bill into law on November 1. His overall indecisive handling of the amnesty issue, however, caused him to lose standing within the FA coalition.
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 Chamber of Representatives and the 30-member Senate, with all members directly elected for 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, the New Space Party, the Socialist Party, and the Uruguayan Assembly, among other factions.
The Transparency Law criminalizes a broad range of potential abuses of power by officeholders, including the laundering of funds related to public corruption cases. Uruguay was ranked 25 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index, making it one of the least corrupt countries in Latin America.
Constitutional guarantees regarding free expression are respected, and violations of press freedom are rare. The press is privately owned, and broadcasting includes both commercial and public outlets. There are numerous daily newspapers, many of which are associated with political parties. A June 2009 bill eliminated criminal penalties for the 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.
The national umbrella trade union, the PIT-CNT, held a nation-wide general strike in October 2010, demanding wage increases and protesting against proposed reforms to the bloated and inefficient public administration. The guiding principles for these reforms included ending the immobility of public servants, reforming the civil service, and establishing a new pay system. The decision to hold the first general strike under José Mujica’s government was divisive within the union movement and reflected an increase in opposition from the radical left within the president’s alliance. In 2011, workers in the transportation, metalwork, public health, and education sectors engaged in strikes to demand better working conditions and higher wages.
Uruguay’s judiciary is relatively independent, but the court system remains severely backlogged. 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, poor conditions, and violence among inmates remained problems in 2011. Medical care for prisoners is substandard, and many rely on visitors for food.
The small Afro-Uruguayan minority, comprising an estimated 4 percent of the population, continues to face economic and social inequalities and is underrepresented in the government.
Women enjoy equal rights under the law but face traditional discriminatory attitudes and practices, including salaries averaging approximately two-thirds those of men. Violence against women remained a problem in 2011. Women held only 12 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Representatives and 13 percent of the Senate following 2009 elections. However, under a 2009 quota law, women must comprise one-third of a party’s political candidate list beginning in 2014. Congress approved same-sex civil unions in 2007, making Uruguay the first South American country to approve these rights nationwide.