Uruguay's Decision

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LAST Sunday Uruguayans voted to avert a confrontation between civil and military authorities. An amnesty for human rights abuses committed during the Army's 12-year reign, from 1973 to 1985, will remain in place. But the questions from that violent, wrenching period will persist.

During their rule, military leaders imprisoned and systematically tortured more than 50,000 men and women, about 1 in every 60 people in Uruguay. This in a land that, before the military's takeover, had enjoyed a long democratic tradition.

Why did it happen? In the late '60s and early '70s, Uruguay's civilian government came under pressure from a guerrilla movement called the Tupamaros. In 1973, the military stepped in, crushed the guerrillas, and launched a purge of anyone associated with left-wing causes.

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Even with the long experience of democracy, fear of leftist activism blended with a code of military autonomy to create a virtual reign of terror.

The desire of many Uruguayans to understand that period in their history and prevent it from recurring drove the arduous referendum effort - a triumph of democracy in itself.

Amnesty became law in 1986, shielding the military from lawsuits brought by those tortured and injured. On gaining power a year earlier, the present civilian government had released political prisoners and granted amnesty to Tupamaros members.

The government's position has been that removing the military's amnesty would lead to conflict and again threaten democracy. A slim majority of Uruguay's voters agreed. A significant number, however, were willing to take the risk and open the past to judicial review.

Clearly, the military's conduct will remain an issue. Thoughtful Uruguayans will try to learn its lessons and perhaps devise ways, through the political and legislative process, to prevent its repeat. A society that considers itself democratic could hardly do less.

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