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Uruguay’s President Mujica struggled with record low approval ratings in 2012, caused in part by increasing crime rates in the capital of Montevideo. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s admittance into the trade bloc, Mercosur, increased tensions between Uruguay’ government, which had supported the move, and the country’s right-wing opposition, which had opposed it.
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 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.
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 three 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 passed in December 2011.
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. A 1986 amnesty law gave the executive, rather than the judicial, branch final say over which cases could be tried. A majority of Uruguayans supported the amnesty and voted to maintain it in two separate referenda in 1989 and 2009. However, court rulings historically reinterpreted the law to allow for higher-level officers to be tried. Since the FA coalition took office in 2005, an estimated 20 former military officers have been tried and convicted. Former military dictator Gregorio Álvarez was convicted in October 2009 of abducting political opponents and of 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. Both houses of parliament voted to nullify the law in October 2011; despite going against popular opinion, Mujica signed the bill into law on November 1, 2011. His overall indecisive handling of the amnesty issue caused him to lose standing within the FA coalition.
Paraguay’s June 2012 suspension from Mercosur and Venezuela’s back-door admittance to the customs union in July undermined cooperation between the Mujica administration and the opposition Congress. The latter had opposed Venezuela’s membership, and felt sidelined when Mujica voted in favor of Venezuela’s entry into the trade bloc. Moreover, the move prompted many members of the Colorado Party to resign from management positions in state companies and other state institutions they were offered after Mujica came to power in 2010.
While Uruguay is one of the safest countries in Latin America, homicides increased by 45 percent in 2012, compared to 2011. Officials attributed the rise in crime to warring drug gangs, as Uruguay becomes an increasingly important transit point for narcotics. The Mujica administration presented a package of 16 measures to Congress in June 2012, including increased police presence in Montevideo, as well as state regulation of the production and distribution of marijuana. The bill had not been voted on by year’s end.
Uruguay is an electoral democracy. 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 20 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 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. However, five government resolutions signed in July 2012 prevent disclosure of certain information regarding the police, such as information on disciplinary procedures and procedures for combatting crime. The government does not place restrictions on internet usage.
Freedom of religion 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.
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 remain serious problems. 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 remains a problem. Women hold only 12 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Representatives and 13 percent of the Senate. However, under a 2009 quota law, women must comprise one-third of a party’s political candidate list beginning in 2014. The Uruguayan Congress approved ratification of the Domestic Workers Convention in April 2012, making Uruguay the first country worldwide to do so. Mandating core labor rights to domestic workers, the convention will become legal once it is ratified by at least two countries. Uruguay’s Congress approved same-sex civil unions in 2007, making Uruguay the first South American country to approve these rights nationwide. Uruguay also became the second Latin American country, after Cuba, to allow abortion. The Senate passed a bill in October 2012 legalizing abortion for any reason during the first trimester; the law took effect in November.