MONTEVIDEO, URUGUAY — A painful and contentious chapter in Uruguay's cautious passage to democracy has closed. In a nationwide plebiscite Sunday, Uruguayans looked at their past - a 12-year military dictatorship notorious for torture and rape of political prisoners - and decided to bury it by voting to uphold an amnesty for military officers accused of human rights abuses.
``The [amnesty] law has been confirmed. There is no doubt that it must be respected,'' acknowledges Matilde Rodr'iguez, who led the citizens' campaign to rescind the 1986 ``Law Declaring an Expiration of the State's Punitive Authority'' that effectively allowed junta members to avoid trial for rights violations.
``This episode ends here,'' agrees Interior Minister Ant'onio M'archesano, a strong supporter of the amnesty. ``Tomorrow we get on with all the other jobs that we have left pending.''
The plebiscite results followed the pattern that independent opinion pollsters had predicted. The country's 2.3 million voters decided to keep the amnesty law on the statutes by a 58 percent to 42 percent margin. The capital, Montevideo, voted by 55 to 45 percent to annul the law, but the margin was not enough to stem an overwhelming tide of support for the government from the heavily conservative countryside. In some rural districts votes in favor of the amnesty outweighed those against it by as much as 10 to 1, according to provisional official results.
But if the vote has closed the debate on the amnesty law, it has by no means erased the bitter memories left by over a decade (1973-85) of military rule.
President Julio Mar'ia Sanguinetti, clearly pleased that the electorate had vindicated his 1986 decision to give the military an amnesty rather than risk a showdown, told reporters on Monday that the law had been ``a political solution to a political problem.''
But it ignored the psychological problem, which campaigners for judicial investigation of the military's crimes insist is much deeper.
``Revenge is not the point. Even punishing the crimes is not the main point,'' argues Ernesto Gonzalez, editor of the left-wing magazine, Brecha. ``It is a question of principle, and a question of finding out the truth,'' to allow society a catharsis, he says.
With no prospect now of any judicial inquiry into the crimes under the dictatorship and no hope of ever finding out how some prisoners ``disappeared'' permanently and how others died, the memories can only rankle, say critics of the amnesty.
``We've said that we accept the results [of the referendum] but that doesn't mean that we're happy with them,'' says Jaime P'erez, secretary-general of the Communist Party which suffered more than any other party at the hands of the military.
``We are not going to stop talking about our dead,'' Mr. P'erez declared as the results of Sunday's poll became clear. ``The ones we loved, we go on loving. The pain we feel, we go on feeling.''
Meanwhile, Uruguay's political parties are studying the referendum results closely, with an eye to elections that are due in November.
The opposition National Party, one of whose leaders led a dissident faction into the anti-amnesty campaign, appears too badly divided to be able to mount a serious challenge, according to most local political analysts.
Of the two leading Colorado Party contenders for President Sanguinetti's mantle, Vice-President Enrique Tarigo shocked many Uruguayans with his harsh attacks on supporters of the referendum, and appeared ``clumsy, not a good leader,'' in the words of one Western diplomat. Mr. Tarigo is running next month in a primary against Sen. Jorge Battle, a descendant of Jos'e Battle, the father of modern Uruguay, and currently tipped as the most likely next president.
For the left-wing Broad Front (Frente Amplio), however, the referendum results are only an indication of what might have been. The front had hoped to win the November race for the politically key post of mayor of Montevideo, and Sunday's results show how strong its vote could be in the capital.
But the 18-year-old alliance between Marxists and more centrist parties, unique in Latin America, appears to be crumbling. The Christian Democrats have already withdrawn from the front, and a social-democratic Popular Government Party is on the verge of formalizing its departure from the front, too.
The presidential campaign is of only indirect interest to Sanguinetti himself, forbidden by the Constitution from running for a second consecutive term of office. His main task, he told reporters, ended Sunday night.
``When the ballot boxes closed, the transition in Uruguay ended,'' he said. ``And no one can think now that there was any other path.''