In Uruguay, public vote may decide military amnesty

Can Uruguayans really forgive and forget? That is the question underlying Uruguayan politics today as thousands of citizens battle to overturn a one-year-old amnesty law for military officers accused of human-rights violations during the country's 1973-1985 dictatorship.

Last month, 80 officials of the country's electoral court began counting signatures collected in a campaign to force the government to put the so-called ``impunity law'' to a popular vote.

Unlike other Latin American countries that have had to deal with their military past, the Uruguayan Constitution permits the calling of a referendum on the validity of the legislation. That is, if one quarter of the electorate - about 555,000 voters - sign petitions calling for a plebiscite.

Organizers of the pro-referendum crusade handed over 634,702 signatures - notarized and packed into 76 large cases - to the electoral court in late December following 10 months of gruelling campaign work throughout the tiny country.

Officials here say it could take another six months before the painstaking process of counting the number of signatories, then verifying their names and signatures with the voting list is completed. The government then has up to two months to call for the referendum.

The referendum's outcome seems to be anyone's guess, and some political observers here say the whole affair is polarizing the country. It has put a decided damper on regular political activity, they say.

Recent public opinion polls indicate 33 to 43 percent of those interviewed favor repealing the amnesty and bringing the officers to trial. But more than 30 percent of those polled in the same survey were undecided. Officials are already talking about holding a referendum regardless of whether the petition succeeds.

Campaign organizers say the government has underestimated the importance of the issue among Uruguayans.

``Anyone who commits a crime should be punished,'' says campaign organizer Mathilde Rodr'iguez, the widow of a Uruguayan legislator believed murdered by Uruguayan security forces operating in Argentina. ``It's a question of principle, and it matters for the future. At first they said we would not be able to get enough signatures. Now they are saying many will be rejected.''

Some of those who collected signatures said many people were reluctant to sign because they didn't want to have their names on a list that could end up in the military's hands.

During its 12 years in power, the military jailed tens of thousands of people and tortured many as part of a crackdown on the left.

A congressional investigation commission said that about 150 Uruguayans disappeared: some 30 people disappeared here under military rule; another 120 disappeared in Argentina, where a right-wing military regime ruled from 1976 to 1983.

There are three explanations for the disappearances of the 120 in Argentina: the Argentine and Uruguayan forces collaborated to get rid of those they perceived as leftists; the Argentine military went after those they thought were leftists; and the Uruguayan military crossed the border.

Although the numbers are far less in Uruguay (150 people out of 2 million) than in Argentina (9,000 - killed by Argentina's military during a seven-year period - out of 28 million people), the ratio of disappearances is higher in Uruguay.

President Julio Sanguinetti has said he would actively campaign to convince citizens to respect the law, which was passed hours before the first of about 700 officers facing charges of abuse were scheduled to appear in a civilian court.

Members of the opposition who support the amnesty and the government say the country's democratic institutions would be jeopardized if the military chooses to openly defy them. They also say they can't isolate the military from a national reconciliation process that saw the freeing of political prisoners as well as other opponents to military rule.

The military is particularly bitter that former Tupamaro guerrillas, who launched armed warfare in the 1970s and early 1980s, were released from jail.

The military has not taken a public position on the referendum campaign.

``We are indifferent,'' says Col. V'ictor Escobal, chief advisor to the recently appointed Defense Minister, Gen. Hugo Medina. ``It is only one sector of the population. We believe in the importance of dialogue with the government and will accept what it decides.''

The referendum issue has become a rallying point for the leftist coalition, Frente Amplio, which received about one-third of the vote in the last election. And it has caused some deep rifts in the main opposition Blanco Party. Some say it distracts opposition forces from taking the government to task on other business and could become an election issue in 1989.

Moreover, it prevents Uruguay from turning the page on the past, a past that many deeply regret ever happened in a country heralded for its progressive social welfare legislation and its history of political stability.

``As long as we don't know if the referendum will take place and what the results will be, the closing of the door on the previous [military regime] and the final transition to democracy remains on hold,'' said Danilo Arbilla, editor of the respected weekly Busqued.

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