History of Uruguay

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THE MILITARY GOVERNMENT, 1973-85

The New Situation, 1973-80

In February 1973, a deep conflict emerged among the president, the General Assembly, and the armed forces. The army and air force rebelled against Bordaberry's selection of a civilian as minister of national defense. On February 9 and 10, the army issued two communiqués proposing a series of political, social, and economic measures. Initially, the navy maintained its loyalty to the president but subsequently joined the other military services. Bordaberry made an agreement with the military, known as the Boisso Lanza Pact, that guaranteed their advisory role and their participation in political decision making. In effect, the pact constituted a quasi-coup. The National Security Council (Consejo de Seguridad Nacional--Cosena) was created as an advisory body to the executive. Its members included the commanders of the army, navy, and air force, plus an additional senior military officer, and the ministers of national defense, interior, and foreign affairs.

The military then pushed for the final approval and implementation of the State Security Law. However, differences with the General Assembly, which was investigating charges of torture committed by the military and felt that the military had exceeded its powers, continued until June 27, 1973. On that date, with the backing of the armed forces, Bordaberry dissolved the General Assembly and replaced it with the Council of State, and he empowered the armed forces and police to take whatever measures were necessary to ensure normal public services. In essence, a de facto dictatorship had been announced. The new situation was supported by some Colorados (the Pachequist faction) and some Blancos (Aguerrondo's Herrerists). But the CNT called for the occupation of factories and a general strike that lasted almost two weeks. When the civil-military dictatorship was consolidated, it banned the CNT, the PCU, and other existing and alleged Marxist-Leninist organizations, and it intervened in the university to quell dissident activities by the students.

The military's "Doctrine of National Security" was a pseudoscientific analysis of society grounded in geopolitics. It posited that sovereignty no longer resided in the people but derived instead from the requirements of state survival. This was basically the same ideology made famous by the Brazilian generals after their takeover in 1964. The core of the doctrine was articulated by Brazil's General Artur Golbery do Couto e Silva in his book Geopolítica do Brasil. Essentially, the book described a world divided into two opposing blocs--the capitalist and Christian West and the communist and "atheistic" East--each with its own values that were considered irreconcilable. The Brazilian and Uruguayan generals saw themselves as part of the Western bloc and were therefore engaged in an unrelenting global struggle with the opposition. This struggle called for a war in which there was no room for hesitation or uncertainty against a cunning and ruthless enemy. Thus, it was necessary to sacrifice some secular freedoms in order to protect and preserve the state.

"Preventive" repression by the Uruguayan military regime was intense. To the dead and disappeared were added thousands of persons who went to jail because they were accused of politically motivated crimes. Many were tortured. Others were fired from their government jobs for political reasons. The regime restricted freedom of the press and association, as well as party political activity. Amnesty International calculated that in 1976 Uruguay had more political prisoners per capita than any other nation on earth. During these years, approximately 10 percent of Uruguay's population emigrated for political or economic reasons.

In June 1976, Bordaberry was forced to resign after submitting a proposal to the military calling for the elimination of political parties and the creation of a permanent dictatorship with himself as president. National elections were to be held that year, although politicians could hardly be sanguine after the assassinations in Argentina of Uruguayan political leaders Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz (National Party) and Zelmar Michelini (Broad Front). Bordaberry was replaced by Alberto Demichelli Lizaso, president of the Council of State, who, through Institutional Act No. 1, decreed the suspension of elections. Three months later, Demichelli was succeeded by Aparicio Méndez (1976-81), who essentially decreed the political prohibition of all individuals who had participated in the 1966 and 1971 elections. Political life thus came to a halt.

In 1977 the military government made public its political plans. Over the next few years, the National Party and the Colorado Party would be purged, a new constitution would be submitted to a plebiscite, and national elections would be held with a single candidate agreed on by both parties. A charter that gave the military virtual veto power over all government policy was drawn up. In 1980 the armed forces decided to legitimize themselves by submitting this constitution to a plebiscite.

Opposing the constitutional project were Batlle Ibáñez, Ferreira, Carlos Julio Pereyra, a Herrerist faction led by Luis Alberto Lacalle de Herrera, Pachequist dissidents, and the Broad Front, who considered it authoritarian and in conflict with Uruguay's democratic tradition. When Uruguay's citizens went to the polls, they dealt the military regime a tremendous blow and rejected the proposed new constitution by 57 to 43 percent.

The Military's Economic Record

When the military took power in 1973, they did so in the face of a decade and a half of economic stagnation, high inflation, and increased social unrest. Massive repression brought the social unrest under control and eliminated the urban guerrilla threat. Economic policy and performance soon became the regime's ultimate claim to legitimacy and justification for its harsh rule. The military and their civilian technocrats hoped to reverse Uruguay's economic stagnation, which had led to an absence of capital accumulation and investment, as well as to capital flight. The dissolution of the General Assembly and the banning of union organizations eliminated any possibilities for action by the opposition and thus made possible a new economic model. The long-term model sought by the military involved a profound change in the traditional roles of the public and private sectors and the response of the public sector to the influence of the external market.

The military's economic program sought to transform Uruguay into an international financial center by lifting restrictions on the exchange rate; ensuring the free convertibility of the peso and foreign remittances, thus further "dollarizing" the economy; facilitating the opening of branches of foreign banks; and enacting a law to promote foreign investment. More attention was paid to the international market. The reduction of import duties, promotion of nontraditional exports, integration of trade with Argentina and Brazil, and liberalization of the agricultural and livestock markets were key goals. Although proposals were made to reduce state interventionism, the state participated actively in the preparation of the new program.

The principal architect of the program was Harvard-trained Alejandro Végh Villegas, who had served as minister of economy and finance from 1974 to 1976. Végh hoped to dismantle the protectionist structure of the economy; free the banking and financial communities from the restraints under which they operated; cut the budget, especially social spending; reduce state employment; and sell off most of the state enterprises. However, some of the nationalist and populist military leaders opposed his plan for mass reductions in government employment and divestiture of such state enterprises as ANCAP. Végh succeeded somewhat in his budgetary and monetary objectives and managed to reduce some tariffs. Between 1975 and 1980, his strict monetary policy reduced inflation from 100 percent in 1972 to 40 to 67 percent in 1980, and by 1982 it was only 20 percent. He managed this by strict control of the social service side of the budget and by a policy of depressed real wages, which fell by 50 percent during the 1970s.

Between 1974 and 1980, the gross domestic product grew, although unevenly. Beginning in 1980, however, the situation changed as the military's economic program began to unravel. High interest rates and recession in the United States did not help matters. Between 1981 and 1983, GDP fell some 20 percent, and unemployment rose to 17 percent. The foreign debt burden, exacerbated by the quadrupling of oil prices in 1974, grew exponentially and stood at about US$3 billion by 1984.

Industry and agriculture, whose accumulation of debt in dollars had been encouraged by official policies, were adversely affected by the government's elimination in November 1982 of its "crawling peg" system (a minidevaluation monetary policy) in effect since 1978. The progressively overvalued currency had limited the ability of domestic producers to raise prices to compete with cheaper imports. The resulting collapse of the Uruguayan new peso bankrupted thousands of individuals and businesses. Industry was in better shape, although it had unused capacity and no substantial diversification had taken place. The financial sector, which was largely foreign owned, was consolidated and expanded at the same time. As the situation deteriorated, the state, in order to save the banking system, purchased noncollectible debt portfolios of ranchers, industrialists, and importers, which were held by private banks. This adversely affected the fiscal deficit and increased the foreign debt, which grew sevenfold between 1973 and 1984.

The failure of the regime's economic model, combined with its stifling of political opposition, prompted thousands of Uruguay's best professionals to go into exile. By late 1983, Végh returned from an ambassadorship in the United States to once again become minister of economy and finance. As the most important technocrat to serve the military regime, he had returned to help smooth out the expected transition to civilian rule. He failed, however, to turn over a revived economy to a democratic government. The lack of success of the military's economic policies and their failure to achieve legitimacy or consensus led to a watering down of their own plan to reinstitute a civilian government under military tutelage.

The Opposition and the Reemergence of Parties, 1980-84

After the electoral defeat of the military's constitution, retired Lieutenant General Gregorio Alvarez Armelino (1981-85), one of the leaders of the coup, became president, and political dialogue was slowly restored. The 1982 Political Parties Law was enacted to regulate the election of political leaders, the functioning of political conventions, and the preparation of political platforms. Its aim was the controlled regeneration and democratization of the political system, but it excluded the left to avoid a return to the situation prior to 1973. In 1982 the officials of the National Party, the Colorado Party, and the Civic Union (Unión Cívica--UC; created in 1971), a small conservative Catholic party, were elected. Once again, election results were a blow to the military. Sectors opposing the dictatorship won overwhelmingly in both traditional parties. A divided left, although officially banned, also participated: some cast blank ballots, while others believed it would be more useful to back the democratic sectors of traditional parties.

The dialogue between politicians and the military gathered momentum but was marked by advances and setbacks and accompanied by increasing civil resistance. Uruguay was now experiencing its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. In 1983 the Interunion Workers' Assembly (or Plenum) (Plenario Intersindical de Trabajadores--PIT) reclaimed the banner of the CNT and was authorized to hold a public demonstration on May 1; it later assumed the name PIT-CNT to show its link with the earlier organization. Students--united under the Students' Social and Cultural Association for Public Education (Asociación Social y Cultural de Estudiantes de la Enseñanza Pública--ASCEEP), heir to the banned student organizations--were allowed to march through the streets of Montevideo. In November all opposition parties including the left staged a massive political rally, demanding elections with full restoration of democratic norms and without political proscriptions.

The Transition to Democracy, 1984-85

In March 1984, the PIT-CNT organized a civil strike and freed General Líber Seregni Mosquera, leader of the Broad Front, whom the military had imprisoned since January 11, 1976. By mid-1984 yet another civil strike took place, this time organized by political parties and social groups. Blanco Senator Ferreira returned from exile. His subsequent imprisonment essentially deprived the National Party of the opportunity to participate in the meetings between politicians and the military that ended with the Naval Club Pact. Signed by the armed forces and representatives from the Colorado Party, UC, and Broad Front, this pact called for national elections to be held that same year on the traditional last Sunday in November.

The discussions at the Naval Club saw the military give up its long-sought goal of a Cosena dominated by the military and with virtual veto power over all civilian government decisions. The military now settled for an advisory board that would be controlled by the president and the cabinet. Some transitional features were agreed to by the civilian leadership, mostly relating to the ability of the armed forces to maintain its seniority system in the naming of the commanders of the various military services. The military also agreed to review the cases of all political prisoners who had served at least half of their sentences. Moreover, the military acquiesced to the relegalization of the left, although the PCU remained officially banned (until March 1985). The Communists were nonetheless able to run stand-in candidates under their own list within the leftist coalition. Nothing was said about the question of human rights violations by the dictatorship.

The election results were no great surprise. With Ferreira prohibited from heading the Blanco ticket and a similar fate for Seregni of the Broad Front, and with effective use of young newcomers and a savvy media campaign, the Colorado Party won. The Colorados received 41 percent of the vote; the Blancos, 34 percent; and the Broad Front, 21 percent. The UC received 2.5 percent of the vote. Within the Broad Front's leftist coalition, social democratic Senator Hugo Batalla, who headed List 99, a faction started by Zelmar Michelini in 1971, was the big winner, garnering over 40 percent of the alliance's vote. For the victorious Colorados, former President Pacheco brought the party 25 percent of its vote. However, the Colorado presidential ticket receiving the most votes (in a system that allowed multiple candidacies for president in each party) was headed by Sanguinetti. After being sworn in as president on March 1, 1985, Sanguinetti led the transition to democracy. He did so with dignity and fairness, although the legacy of human rights violations under the dictatorship proved a troublesome problem.

SOURCE: Country Studies/Area Handbook by the US Library of Congress

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