Uruguay's military amnesty - good or bad?

A FEW years ago the citizens of the small South American republic of Uruguay hailed a return to democracy as military officers handed over power to duly elected civilian leaders. They expected that the predominance of civilian authority over the military would be restored after a decade of dictatorship. However, such expectations were dashed last December when the President and legislature apparently abdicated such authority by granting immunity to military personnel accused of human rights violations.

In Uruguay, the military, before and after it seized power in a 1973 coup, waged a ``dirty war'' to wipe out the left-wing urban guerrillas, the Tupamaros. Officers and subordinates kidnapped, tortured, and murdered hundreds of leftists and suspected leftists.

Most people there had presumably reasoned that with the return to a democratic government, military perpetrators of such crimes would be prosecuted and punished. Thousands of disappointed citizens protested in the streets when amnesty was announced. Now, hundreds of them have organized a campaign for a plebiscite to abrogate the amnesty law.

President Julio Mar'ia Sanguinetti has reacted adamantly against the petition campaign and has labeled it a plebiscite for revenge. He argues that the people should not dwell on the past but must move forward together to consolidate democratic institutions.

A supportive argument is that the military agreed to abandon power and permit a return to democratic rule in the Naval Club Pact (Sanguinetti was the leading civilian negotiator) of 1984, and one of the ``implied' conditions was amnesty for the military.

Since taking office in 1985, Sanguinetti, despite public clamor for trials, has played for time. However, in December, as the judiciary commenced processing trials for 61 officers accused of rights violations, the military instructed the defendants not to appear in court. Sanguinetti, to avoid a showdown, gave in, and he and the legislature rushed through an amnesty law.

Now, in March, the plebiscite campaign is in full momentum, and it appears the 500,000 necessary signatures (25 percent of the electorate), will be gathered.

In analyzing the Uruguayan situation, an important factor is the abiding resentment of the military by a goodly portion of the citizenry.

It is true that when the military took over in 1973, the general populace welcomed them, as the Tupamaro guerrillas (disaffected, over-educated young professionals) had brought this middle-class democracy to a standstill. The generals and the people blamed inept and corrupt politicians for creating the environment in which the Tupamaros prospered. But the generals proved to be more inept and corrupt. Worse yet, they established a harsh, repressive dictatorship.

Moreover, the military ran the economy so inefficiently that many domestic firms closed down, leading to unemployment and a sharp decline in living standards.

An integral part of the military regime's economic policies was the massive dollar borrowing from international bankers. Much of this money spawned a short-lived boom which benefited mainly upper, and upper- middle, classes.

So with the advent of civilian rule, people harbored hopes that the civilian government would set things right with the military and its economic policies. However, they have been disappointed.

The conservative Sanguinetti administration has followed policies similar to its predecessors: compliance with the International Monetary Fund austerity programs and prompt payments on the external debt, which denies necessary capital funds for economic recovery.

Such a listless economy affects wage earners and the poor the most. Public employees and factory workers are moving out of modern apartments into shantytowns as monthly paychecks cover only food and other basic necessities. Many of the poor are so desperate that they sustain themselves by rummaging through garbage cans in affluent neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, the officers guilty of human rights abuses and severe damage to the economy continue to live in comfort and will now be protected from prosecution.

The political left feels the most outraged by amnesty, as it fared the worst under military rule. They are afraid that amnesty creates a justification for the military to intervene again.

Thus the Broad Front leftist coalition (ranging from Christian Democrats to communists) is spearheading the plebiscite signature drive and is cautiously optimistic of eventual electoral success. However, recent surveys indicate that although most Uruguayans oppose amnesty, many of them are fearful of a confrontation with the military which could jeopardize the orderly transition to a full-fledged democracy. Thus, they believe the plebiscite unwise. Perhaps their concerns are well grounded.

Arie Schoorl resided in Montevideo, Uruguay, for eight years where he edited a newsletter on politics and economics and taught at the University of Montevideo Law School.

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