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A guard stands at a monument to General Artigas in preparation for a memorial ceremony
Courtesy United States Department of Defense

Until the 1960s, the military was mostly ignored by politicians and played a marginal role in Uruguayan political life. A military career lacked prestige and respect. Officers came mainly from the lower middle class in the small towns and cities of the interior; troops were recruited from the lowest strata of the rural sector, mainly from the estancias (ranches) or from the ranks of the unemployed in the urban shantytowns (cantegriles).

In the second half of the 1960s, the military began to function in a limited law enforcement capacity after the national economy suffered a serious downturn and public discontent increasingly came to disrupt internal order. Initially backing up the National Police in confrontations with union members, students, and other protesters, the military was drawn further into the struggle as the decade progressed, manning road blocks, conducting searches, and eventually becoming targets themselves. The most significant threat to public order was the growth of the urban guerrilla movement known as the MLN-T, whose adherents were more commonly known as Tupamaros.

The armed forces leadership was divided internally over the military's new role, but antipathy toward the Tupamaros' Marxist political philosophy was strong among the politically conservative, staunchly anticommunist military leadership. Initially, the police had been charged with handling the problem, but as the disorder worsened, many in the armed forces grew impatient with the police's lack of success. When President Jorge Pacheco Areco (1967-72) called on the army to take over responsibility for the problem on September 9, 1971, the Army Intelligence Service began to draw up a military offensive. After the Tupamaros escalated the guerrilla campaign in April 1972, President Bordaberry, Pacheco's successor, and the General Assembly declared a state of "internal war" against them. The army was prepared, and the insurgency was crushed within a few months (see Pachequism, 1967-72 , ch. 1).

By this time, however, the armed forces leadership had agreed that the military's duty to the nation required it to pursue a level of internal order that was untroubled by leftist, student, labor, or other opposition or protest. The suspension of constitutional protections during the state of internal war was therefore prolonged by new legislation that put harsh controls on the press and on dissent. The new laws also stated that persons charged with crimes against the national security were denied normal legal protections and were subject to preventive detention and trial in military courts.

In June 1973, the military compelled President Bordaberry to accept suspension of the democratic process and institute military rule through the creation of the National Security Council (Consejo de Seguridad Nacional--Cosena), made up of the commanders in chief of the army, navy, and air force, plus an additional senior military officer, and the ministers of national defense, interior, and foreign affairs. The General Assembly was abolished on June 27 and replaced with the thirty-member Council of State (Consejo de Estado). A new armed forces organic law, adopted in February 1974, assigned the military the role of protector of the nation's traditional way of life against a communist threat. Beyond that general mission, however, the military had no coherent ideological agenda or any organized plan for national development. No charismatic military leader emerged to centralize power. Instead, decision making was characterized by consensus among senior officers, who were determined to use the military's new powers to impose internal order (see The Military Government, 1973-85 , ch. 1).

Until the 1972-73 period, the Uruguayan armed forces were among the least politicized in Latin America. The military had little experience in political affairs and no corporate political philosophy beyond a belief in democracy and an antipathy toward communism and extreme leftist political thought. Many within the armed forces viewed the military's assumption of power in 1973 as a necessary but unfortunate interruption of the nation's democratic tradition. A significant element within the military was never comfortable with the institution's expanded role, however. Nonetheless, during the period of military rule, senior and sometimes mid-level officers served in positions of responsibility in various government agencies, the National Police, some businesses, and autonomous entities ( autonomous agencies or state enterprises; see Glossary). In general, military personnel assigned to such posts found themselves poorly prepared in terms of either training or education to take on new responsibilities.

During the 1973-80 period, the military moved ruthlessly against all it deemed a security threat. An estimated 6,000 citizens were tried in the military courts, and critics charged that tens of thousands were detained, denied legal rights, or abused or tortured. During the same period, the military grew from some 22,000 to an estimated 30,000, and military officers began to serve as heads of state enterprises and as governors of departments.

In 1980 the military government attempted to legitimize the armed forces' political role by submitting to public referendum a new constitution that effectively gave the armed forces veto power within a restricted democracy. The regime publicly campaigned that the constitution moved the nation toward democracy. The government also identified opposition to the referendum with support for communism or, conversely, with support for continued military rule. Nonetheless, opposition positions were permitted expression, and the proposed constitution was rejected by 57 percent of the populace.

The armed forces leadership then instituted a process of slow disengagement from economic, political, and administrative positions of power. Surprising many local and foreign observers, the president of the Council of the Nation (Consejo de la Nación, consisting of the Council of State and twenty-eight military officers), which became the supreme governing body in 1976, appointed a retired military general as president of an interim administration designed to initiate a process to return the country to civilian leadership in 1985. In March 1984, the military negotiated the Naval Club Pact with most of the nation's political parties to design the transition, which included reestablishment of the General Assembly. In March 1985, a new civilian president, Julio María Sanguinetti Cairolo (1985-90), was inaugurated. After 1985 the military leadership devoted itself to the management of a depoliticized and professional armed forces establishment.

The process of the military's withdrawal from national political life was difficult. There were charges in the 1985-86 period, for instance, that the armed forces intelligence services continued to monitor opposition groups as potential sources of subversion. Such charges had died down by the late 1980s, after passage of a new armed forces law that reaffirmed the supremacy of civilian command and after senior military leaders made public statements of allegiance to civilian democratic rule.

The most difficult issue facing the nation in the wake of the return to civilian rule was how to treat military officers who had committed offenses during the period of military rule. In an effort to calm military and police fears and to put the nation's troubled past behind it, the Chamber of Representatives passed, by a vote of sixty to thirty-seven, an amnesty bill on December 22, 1986, to prevent prosecution of nearly all such offenses. Almost immediately, opponents of the law launched a movement to bring the bill to a public referendum. After protracted legal deliberations, the bill was placed before the voters in 1989, and the public voted to retain the amnesty provisions. As of the end of 1990, the military continued to play a very minor role in the national economic and political life, and officers were no longer seconded to serve in the civilian administration.

Data as of December 1990

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