Once-idyllic Uruguay beset by economic, political troubles

This was once the Switzerland of South America - a small, tranquil land where everything seemed to work well, people were happy, and welfare made it possible to retire at age 50 or 55.

It was all a bit idyllic.

But the idyll is over. Uruguay today is floundering in a huge foreign debt, high unemployment, deepening recession, and massive uncertainty.

''We're now a middle-class banana republic,'' says banker Serafin Anaya, who like many other Uruguayans would like to leave his homeland. ''There's no future here.''

Mr. Anaya is better off than many Uruguayans. He has a steady job, is a member of the Carrasco Polo Country Club, and owns a small condominium at Punta del Este, Uruguay's major beach resort.

Still, he has plenty of complaints. They center on the fact that life in Uruguay is no longer as nice as it was when he was young. One hears this complaint, expressed one way or another, from almost everyone here.

There is also growing grumbling over 10 years of dictatorial military rule. The generals had considerable popular support at the beginning of their rule. After all, they stamped out a powerful guerrilla force that was wreaking havoc on Uruguayan life.

But the military also stamped out political life and turned this once-democratic nation into a dictatorship.

That dictatorial rule turned the public against the military. An economic downturn that began in the late 1970s has compounded the people's dislike of the military. There can be no masking the mounting public fury against military rule.

The military knows it. The generals say they will step down sometime before 1985. But Uruguayans are skeptical about the promise.

They have reason to be. The Uruguayan military actually is divided on plans to restore democracy in 1985 and return to the barracks.

Gen. Gregorio Alvarez, the current president, would like to stay in power for at least five more years. But he has the support of only two or three of the 27 generals who have the power to decide the issue.

At least 22 of the generals want to respect the timetable, which includes presidential elections in November 1984. But that lineup does not deter General Alvarez. After all, he has some clout through his position and his actions.

For example, he seems inclined to boycott talks with the three political parties - the Blanco, the Colorado, and the Civic Union - about constitutional reforms that the military wants to impose as a precondition for the return to democracy. If he does stay away from these negotiations, it is questionable whether they will be able to proceed.

There is always the possibility that the military itself might step in and remove General Alvarez. But it is loath to do so because of the image this might present to the nation.

The other military leaders give an indication that they want to present a united front. They know their record over the past decade has not sat well with a growing majority of Uruguay's 3 million people.

This recognition does not deter them, however, from actions that only enhance the repugnance felt by Uruguay's civilians. In late September, the military arrested a member of the national direc- torate of the Blanco Party, following a national protest day.

The move was seen by some here as a warning to the civilian politicians not to get out of line. Others saw it as an effort by the military to present a unified military front.

Whatever the reason for the arrest, it clearly was repudiated by the politicians. Since the timetable for a return to civilian rule was set up, they have increasingly flexed their muscles in public statements and protests.

Julio Sanguinetti, an official of the Colorado Party, says military actions are ''destabilizing.'' In recent weeks, he said in an interview, ''There have been numerous attacks on political parties by sectors of the armed forces just at the moment that negotiations toward a solution were getting under way.

''Unless the military restores civil liberties,'' he added, ''we cannot return to talks with them.''

The Blanco Party shares that view. In late September, it said it would not return to the negotiating table until the military lifts the proscription on political activities imposed on party official Eladio Fernandez Menendez.

Meanwhile, Blanco Party leader Wilson Ferreira Aldunate, languishes in exile in London. He was a losing candidate in 1971 presidential balloting and has been outside Uruguay since 1974. Party leaders here say they are far from certain it would be safe him to return.

In the eyes of the average Uruguayan, however, all this political squabbling, together with speculation on Uruguay's political future, takes a back seat to the more mundane issues of the national economy.

This is the far more important issue in the view of many here. Recent protest demonstrations, while calling for an end to military rule and a return to civilian political rule, featured the plight of the average Uruguayan.

Inflation is raging at 45 percent a year and unemployment is at about 16 percent. Recent increases in electric, water, and telephone rates have caused a storm of protest.

The economy, based traditionally on beef and wheat exports, has stagnated. Not only has the democratic tradition on which Uruguay once prided itself been lost, but so has national self-sufficiency and the social welfare that made this land an oasis amid problems elsewhere in Latin America.

It helps explain why some of the best and brightest young Uruguayans are leaving.

''How can I remain,'' asked Hilda Montero Salinas, a bright-eyed young university graduate as she boarded a flight to Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital, where she was to connect with a flight to Paris to join a sister. ''This is no longer a nation of hope but of desperation.''

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