Uruguay unlikely to see early return to the halycon days of civilian rule

Politically stable and at least somewhat prosperous, Uruguay was long regarded as the Switzerland of South America.

But no longer.

Instead, Uruguay today suffers from the malaise of most of its neighbors: heavy-handed, repressive military rule.

And there is little likelihood of any early return to those halcyon days when Uruguay was a much-admired democracy under civilian rule.

Although cautious political liberalization is taking place, with the military talking vaguely about returning to civilian rule, there are no plans for free elections. This was made clear in year-end remarks by Gregorio Alvarez, the retired Army general who was named president by the military last September.

Moreover, in a New Year's message, a government spokesman talked of the ''perennial threat'' of the left-wing Tupamaro guerrilla movement.

''We have to be sure they [the guerrillas] never again rise to threaten us,'' he said. ''To do this, the Army has to root out every vestige of [them], and that may take years.''

Such statements, along with the actions of the military, lead many Uruguayans to believe that their traditional democracy, so long the envy of other Latin Americans, has been destroyed.

Over the past decade, thousands of Uruguayans have been jailed - not just for alleged links with the Tupamaros, but also simply for opposition to military rule.

Critics say the military cannot distinguish between Tupamaro opposition and that of other Uruguayans.

The number of Uruguayans jailed is not known, but is reliably estimated at 10 ,000. Large numbers have been tortured; many others have died in prison. And an estimated 7,000 Uruguayans, most of them young, have fled into exile. Political parties and labor unions have been banned.

Critics of the Uruguayan military said General Alvarez was responsible for much of the repression. As a young lieutenant general in 1973, he engineered the military takeover and then served as Army commander in chief until the late 1970 s.

Yet within the military, he is regarded as a liberal, at least in the view of right-wingers like the present Army commander, Gen. Luis Queirolo. His emergence as President last year came after a bitter struggle within the military.

The right-wingers were angered by General Alvarez's purge of high-ranking Army officers involved in financial scandals, including the misuse of police pension funds in gambling and other shady financial operations, late in the 1970 s.

These ultrarightist officers also are angry over General Alvarez's approval of a statute governing limited political party activity and the rehabilitation of a handful of the more than 8,000 civilian politicians banned during the past decade. Most of these politicians are of minor rank.

There are no plans to restore the two top political leaders: Sen. Wilson Ferreira Aldunate, head of the banned Partido Blanco; or former Army Gen. Liber Seregni, presidential candidate of a leftist coalition in 1971. Senator Ferreira is in exile in London; General Seregni is in jail.

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