As Uruguay approaches the second anniversary of its return to civilian rule, a crucial question remains: How much and what kind of power does the military really wield in this democracy? Less than two months ago, the country's legislature passed a hotly disputed amnesty law exonerating the military of human rights violations during the dictatorship of 1973-85.
Proponents of the law say the amnesty was the final act in the negotiations with the military that brought the conditional handing over of power to civilians in March 1985, and that it was essential to consolidate democracy. But opponents say the bill's passage means the military still has significant input in the political system and can exercise tutelage at will.
``What is evident is that up until now the armed forces have constituted a pressure group and the political system has ceded,'' says Hugo Batalla, a leader in the Broad Front, a coalition of leftist parties that voted against the amnesty.
Government spokesmen say the recoupment of democracy is an ongoing process. ``No transition is perfect,'' Foreign Relations Minister Enrique Iglesias said in an interview.
``It's true for us, for Argentina, for Brazil, for Spain, and Aquino in the Philippines. Argentina also had to pass the punto final [the so-called ``full stop'' law that puts a time limit on prosecution of the military for human rights abuses]. Why? Because you can't build up a society confronting the Army.''
Two-thirds of the Uruguayan legislature approved the amnesty mainly to prevent the Army from openly defying the country's justice system. The bill was passed just two days before the start of a civilian trial for one of some 700 officers facing human rights charges. The supreme court had ruled that the cases were outside the jurisdiction of military courts, but the Army had made it clear that no officer would appear before a civilian court.
Chamber of Deputies Speaker Luis Ituno, of the opposition Blanco (National) Party, says that if the legislature had not acted, ``we would have had to resign ourselves to being left without democracy once again, because if one part of the state organization rebels against the judicial power, what sense do laws and institutions make?''
Political observers note that after so many years in power the military is not content to return to the barracks without some kind of political say. ``Let's not be naive,'' Uruguayan President Julio Mar'ia Sanguinetti said in an interview published last year. ``After 12 years of unchallenged rule, they [the military] cannot be expected to change their thinking overnight.''
Many officers are convinced what they did was necessary to save the country from subversion. This view, say some analysts, is part of a messianic philosophy enshrined in the ``national security doctrine'' espoused by the region's military beginning in the 1960s. The threat of communist subversion in the hemisphere, and the belief that only the military could save the region, analysts say, led to development of theories for restructuring society and eventually to the ``national security state.'' Attempts to eliminate ``subversive thought'' often came to mean those whose views differed from those of the military.
One major question faced by the new democracies is whether the military should continue to have authority to protect the nation against internal as well as external threats. The Argentine government has introduced legislation to limit the military's role to defense against external aggression.
In Uruguay, internal documents leaked to the press last year indicated the military was continuing surveillance on union members, opposition politicians, and human rights organizations.
The Rev. Luis P'erez Aguirre - head of Service Peace and Justice, the Roman Catholic Church-backed human rights group - says the lack of political will to confront strong sectors of the armed forces is indicative of a new type of power structure that has emerged as dictatorships have made way for democracy in South America.
``No one can convince us that we have not remained under tutelage by the military, which has shown its capacity to elude, when it considers it necessary, subordination to the civilian society it should serve and obey,'' says Fr. P'erez. Domestic and international political and economic conditions do not justify a military return to power, so the officers are intent on protecting their interests from behind the scene, he adds.
Interior Minister Augusto Marchesano said in an interview that the government needs to be able to count on the future support of the military. Public clamoring for human rights trials, he said, had created a climate of confrontation ``that made the Army feel under attack and isolated from a national understanding that had accepted [former Tupamaro] guerrillas back into national life.'' (An amnesty was granted all political prisoners with the return of civilian rule in March 1985.)
Mr. Marchesano says the government is taking steps to restore civilian control over functions formerly held by the Army. The amnesty law called also for the country's intelligence service, an integral part of the military's repression apparatus, to be transferred from military control to the Ministry of National Defense. Promotions for high ranks will be approved by civilians, Marchesano says, and the government is refraining from filling vacancies in an attempt to reduce the size of the 35,000-strong (excluding police) Army.
Meanwhile, both those for and against the amnesty law point out that the Uruguayan Constitution permits the calling of a referendum on the validity of legislation if one-quarter of the electorate - about 530,000 voters - signs petitions calling for a plebiscite. The widows of two legislators believed murdered by Uruguayan forces operating in Argentina have filed a legal petition to begin collecting signatures for a national referendum.