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Chapter 5. National Security


The colonial fortress museum of Santa Teresa National Park near Laguna Negra in Rocha Department

AS OF 1990, URUGUAY FACED no external threat. Its defense posture was based on the country's geostrategic position as a buffer state. Defense planners recognized that the nation could never independently deter invasion, however unlikely, by either of its two giant neighbors--Argentina and Brazil--and instead counted on attracting aid from one should the other attack. As a result, the armed forces were chiefly organized to cope with internal threats, although Uruguay had no terrorist or insurgency problem in the 1980s and 1990.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, an urban guerrilla movement--the National Liberation Movement-Tupamaros (Movimiento de Liberación Nacional-Tupamaros--MLN-T)--posed a significant threat to national security. The military ruthlessly suppressed the Tupamaros in 1972 after the police proved unable to do so. Although the Tupamaros had been brought under control by then, the military seized control of the government of Juan María Bordaberry Arocena (1972-76) in 1973 in order to suppress all activity it interpreted as threatening the public order. The military's effort to rationalize and legitimize its role as political arbiter was rejected in a 1980 referendum. The defeat was attributable to the country's strong national democratic tradition and to public bitterness over human rights abuses under military rule. The military, itself divided over the armed forces' proper role in national political life, accepted the public's decision, and civilian rule was restored completely in 1985.

After the resumption of civilian rule, the armed forces occupied a position much like that during the period before military rule; they were under the control of the civilian government and were largely excluded from national political and economic decision making. The armed forces continued to embrace a conservative and anticommunist political orientation. The military leadership, however, expressed its commitment to a pluralist democratic system on several occasions during the late 1980s and in 1990.

Acknowledging reluctantly that the nation faced no serious threat to internal order and sensitive to the dictates of a constrained national economy, during the late 1980s the military accepted an approximately 20 percent reduction in personnel, as well as a significant reduction in spending. As of 1990, armed forces strength was about 25,200, somewhat higher than the level maintained during premilitary rule.

The army was deployed geographically under regional headquarters; it was organized and equipped principally as a counterinsurgency force. The navy operated a coastal and riverine patrol fleet; it was supported by a small naval air arm. The air force provided counterinsurgency air support and transport and logistics services. Equipment in all three services was aging or obsolete, and, because of shortages of spare parts, some equipment could not operate. The straitened national economy, however, made replacement or modernization of the armed forces inventory unlikely in the near term.

Public order in the late 1980s was chiefly disturbed by occasional--and usually not very lengthy--public demonstrations or labor actions. Little violence was associated with such activities, and for the most part the National Police were able to maintain public order and contain ordinary crime without resorting to unusual force. The National Police were divided into local commands under a departmental chief in each of the country's nineteen departments.

Criminal justice was the responsibility of the national government. The Supreme Court of Justice administered the national judiciary and the country's criminal courts. Constitutional guarantees regarding civil rights and the right to a fair trial were routinely honored. Political prisoners were granted amnesty in 1985 and released from prison; there have been no credible reports of political arrests or human rights abuses since that time.

Data as of December 1990

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