ON April 16, a plebiscite will take place in Uruguay which could make a special contribution to democracy in Latin America. If democracy means citizens have the right and obligation to decide their own fate, then this nation - once called the ``Switzerland of South America'' for its sophisticated welfare state and commitment to civil liberties - is giving the continent a lesson in how to apply that principle, with dignity, to the civil-military clash over human rights.
Briefly, the plebiscite allows Uruguay's 2.2 million voters to decide whether an amnesty for human rights violations committed by the military from 1973 to 1985 will continue to have the force of law.
During their 12-year rule, Uruguay's armed forces turned the country into one of the most totalitarian states in Latin America. Tens of thousands were arrested, thousands tortured and incarcerated, and scores ``disappeared,'' or were killed. University autonomy was destroyed, opposition newspapers banned, and political party and trade union activity was thrown into a hellish limbo.
Some of the numbers may not seem dramatic in absolute terms. But in 1976, according to Amnesty International, Uruguay had more political prisoners per capita than any other nation in the world. All this after the Tupamaro guerrilla movement had been destroyed, by the armed forces' own admission.
Rejection of their constitutional model and economic failures helped persuade the Uruguayan armed forces to give up direct control of the government in 1985. Unlike their Argentine counterparts, however, they were not further discredited by defeat in a war. Thus, the incoming Sanguinetti administration may not have felt itself in a position to promise official government trials - such as were held in Argentina - to deal with the human rights crimes of the military. The administration did agree to respect the constitutional right of aggrieved citizens to bring suit in the civil courts.
By late 1986, over three dozen such cases were making their way through the courts, but the military leadership had also made it clear that no soldier would be ordered to participate. To avoid a crisis, a frightened parliament passed an amnesty law, which was quickly accepted by the president just hours before the first military personnel were due to appear in court. But the story does not end there. Uruguay's Constitution permits a referendum on laws passed by parliament, provided that 25 percent of the electorate sign a petition requesting it. No one in power believed that the required signatures could be collected - the equivalent of at least 40 million signatures in the United States.
But after a year-long, grass-roots effort by political parties, trade unions, social and religious organizations, and factions of the two traditional parties, far more than the requisite number of signatures were presented to the electoral court for verification.
There then began a torturous certification process, in which tens of thousands of signatures were discarded for the most arbitrary reasons. Another year later, after much popular pressure, the court decided to require some 38,000 people, whose signatures had originally been questioned, to appear in person over a three-day period to confirm that they had signed.
The anti-referendum forces did not believe this last hurdle could be overcome. But in late December it was, and a reluctant government set the date for the plebiscite while an unrepentant armed forces hinted that nothing would change even if the law was overturned.
The Uruguayan government's failure to achieve some measure of accountability for the human rights violations of the dictatorship has led to the current, historically unique situation. The military still believes that its messianic vision of national security justifies past actions and gives it the right to intervene in the future. But democracy, which by definition includes a degree of uncertainty and risk, is strengthened by a citizenry and a leadership who understand and accept that fact. And to the extent that the military is allowed to avoid accountability, the demilitarization of government in Uruguay - as in much of Latin America - has not been accompanied by the democratization of power.
This situation will begin to change if the amnesty law is overturned, or even if the law is upheld but a significant percentage of the electorate says closing the books on the abuses and the crimes of the past without any official accounting is simply wrong, morally and politically.
It's this admonishing spirit of conscience that confronts the military, the government, and the voters of Uruguay on April 16.