Military Rule Comes to Democratic Uruguay

The long-standing democratic political system in Uruguay evolved into one of Latin America’s more brutal military dictatorships.

Summary of Event

In 1945, 1950, 1955, and 1960, a panel of Latin American experts was asked to rate the twenty Latin American republics in order of their democratic attainment. On all four occasions, Uruguay ranked as the most democratic. The criteria included a number of factors, such as freedom of the press and an independent judiciary, that are germane to human rights. Had a similar poll been conducted during the 1970’s, the outcome would have been very different. A 180-degree turn had changed Uruguay from one of Latin America’s most democratic countries to a cruel military dictatorship. Uruguay;military dictatorship
[kw]Military Rule Comes to Democratic Uruguay (June 27, 1973)
[kw]Uruguay, Military Rule Comes to Democratic (June 27, 1973)
Uruguay;military dictatorship
[g]South America;June 27, 1973: Military Rule Comes to Democratic Uruguay[01200]
[g]Uruguay;June 27, 1973: Military Rule Comes to Democratic Uruguay[01200]
[c]Government and politics;June 27, 1973: Military Rule Comes to Democratic Uruguay[01200]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 27, 1973: Military Rule Comes to Democratic Uruguay[01200]
[c]Human rights;June 27, 1973: Military Rule Comes to Democratic Uruguay[01200]
Batlle y Ordóñez, José
Bordaberry, Juan María
Sendic, Raul
Areco, Jorge Pacheco
Sanguinetti, Julio María

Three decades of democracy in Uruguay eroded over the course of one decade. The seeds in which one of Latin America’s more brutal military regimes germinated had been sown decades earlier. The catalyst was an urban guerrilla group known as the Tupamaros. (Formally named the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional, or National Liberation Movement, the group acquired a label derived from the name of the last Inca chieftain, Tupac Amarú.) Disenchanted socialists who had given up on the peaceful path to reform, they declared that progress had been subverted to the interests of the few, and they embraced the life of the urban guerrilla. The demise of democracy in Uruguay was acquiesced to, even encouraged, through the processes of the Uruguayan democratic system.

José Batlle y Ordóñez, known as the “father of modern Uruguay,” was a leader of the Colorado political party who served as president of Uruguay from 1903 to 1907 and again from 1911 to 1915. A forceful, innovative leader, he transformed the nature of the Uruguayan political, economic, and social systems. His reforms led to increased democracy and social betterment—improved education, more public social welfare programs—and they enhanced governmental participation in the economy. Ultimately, however, these changes, which earlier had created the “Switzerland of South America,” contributed to a collection of destabilizing conditions—a factionalized political system, a welfare state that exceeded the financial capabilities of the government, inefficient industry, and runaway inflation. The resulting dissatisfaction was reflected in an increase in left-wing radicalism.

In September, 1970, after more than one hundred Tupamaros had escaped from a penitentiary, President Jorge Pacheco Areco took the next step in dealing with armed violence in Montevideo. He lifted control of the antiguerrilla campaign out of the hands of the police to make it the responsibility of the armed forces. This move was followed by a period of relative tranquillity, attributable to the fact that the Tupamaros had made a political decision to suspend violent activities during the upcoming political campaign in the hope that this would improve the chances of the left-wing coalition that was contesting the election. A questionable election count led to the selection of Colorado candidate Juan María Bordaberry as the president who would have the dubious honor of presiding over the snuffing out of democracy in Uruguay.

President Bordaberry, with the willing cooperation of the military, continued the tough policies of his predecessor. By early 1973, the military had moved out of an ostensible support position to become a part of a new National Security Council structure that, jointly with the elected president, exercised executive power in Uruguay. In June of 1973, the combined president-military closed the parliament and formally instituted dictatorial rule. By that time, the Tupamaros had been defeated; they no longer were a threat. The military, however, had become politicized to the point that it continued and augmented its role in running the country. It had decided to extirpate not only the Tupamaros—the symbol of a failing economic, political, and social system—but also the system itself.

There was no single or simple explanation for the transformation of one of Latin America’s most apolitical and least visible military institutions into an activist ruling party. A deteriorating economy; a middle class at risk from inflation, strikes, and chaos; and an ineffectual political system that long had demonstrated a lack of will to resolve Uruguay’s problems all were evident. On the other hand, there were also motivations within the military leadership to embrace the political forum. Among the motivations suggested were that the military traditionally had been recruited from among the most conservative elements within Uruguay, that the experience of being brought into contact with the complaints that gave rise to Tupamaro rebellion was a traumatic one (even though ideologically the Tupamaros and the military were at opposite poles), and that Uruguay’s military leadership had absorbed the so-called national security doctrine associated with the governing military in bordering Brazil. That doctrine, simply stated, saw the world as polarized between Christian free enterprise and Marxist socialism, with the military serving as the ultimate arbiter of the right choice.

Not atypically, Uruguay’s military regime never was purely military. Several military-civilian structures were established through which the functions of government were carried out. Major decision-making power was, however, held jointly by the heads of the separate services. Less typical was the fact that no single military figure ever rose to a position of dominance; there was no Gamal Abdel Nasser, as in Egypt, or an Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, as in Chile. Internal security, the police function, was carried out by the military and the civilian police, with the military in control.

The human rights and political freedoms records of military rulers in Uruguay were abysmal. Torture, disappearances, and murders were used, as well as imprisonment for political reasons. People in general were categorized in terms of their political reliability. Those at the low end of the scale were denied jobs and passports. Military courts were used for trials of civilians. Publications offensive to the military regime were banned from school libraries. Public meetings and festivities, even family reunions, had to be conducted with the knowledge and approval of the security authorities. Labor unions were banned. Censorship was instituted for all types of news and cultural publications and events. The military government took on the trappings of a tyrannical system.

The end result of all of this was a regime of fear. Probably fewer than three hundred persons actually were killed, and the modes of torture used—electric shock, beatings, simulated executions—could be called conventional. The internal security apparatus grew, however, and it became more pervasive and more draconian. People came to feel that a seemingly arbitrary hand of authority hung over their heads. Many cowered, and many fled.

Lip service had been given from the beginning to the redemocratization of Uruguay. The regime’s performance, however, did not lend credence to a real dedication to re-creating democracy in Uruguay. As the military encountered growing problems in ruling the country—difficulty in gaining political compliance from the politicians, who resisted military proposals for a new order; an initially apparently successful but soon failing economic policy; and an outright rejection by the electorate of a proposed new constitution that would have ensured a continued political position for the military—the time ripened for the military to bow out, even if not gracefully. In the eleventh year of the military regime, elections were held that resulted in the selection of a longtime Colorado politician, Julio María Sanguinetti, as president, to take office on March 1, 1985. The leading opposition candidate had been jailed and excluded from the plebiscite.


In a region in which Uruguay, Chile, and Costa Rica were the traditional democratic states, the failure of democracy in Uruguay was a blow to the image of democratic government in Latin America. The blow was compounded by the fact that, on September 11 of the same year (1973), President Salvador Allende of Chile was murdered during the course of a successful military coup that instituted a brutal military regime. To add to the tragedy, the military governments of Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay developed records of brutal human rights violations that became major political concerns in all three countries and were not forgotten in the international community. These poor human rights records remained as dark stains on the escutcheons of the three most ethnically and racially European of all Latin American countries.

Most of Latin America had long strived for democratic sobriety but had often failed. Nevertheless, democracy was progressing. The long-term military dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay was only a pale image of cruel nineteenth and twentieth century dictatorships in Argentina, Venezuela, and Mexico. Countries such as Colombia and Venezuela appeared on the road to a permanency of democratic government.

Over the first seventy years of the twentieth century, there had been a cyclical alternation of periods of predominant civilian and military rule in Latin America. Even military governments paid lip service to democracy and were moderate in their violations of human rights. Then elements of “Nasserism” infiltrated the zone; long-term military governments with major political and economic agendas blossomed in countries such as Brazil and Peru. The proclamation of the military as defenders of the constitution was being replaced by a psychology that gave precedence to the military institution as the best mode of government, the corrector of the weaknesses and evils of civilian government. Scholars observing Brazil and Peru have attributed this effect to teachings in the higher-level military schools. The Uruguayan military seemed to have taken the journeyman’s route; they learned on the job that their destiny was to rule. The fragile fabric of Latin American democracy was rent by events in Chile and Uruguay, the bastions of democracy in South America.

Alternatively, another lesson may have been learned. The military that governed soon discovered that military professionalism was no match for problems that seemed endemic to Latin American society. Even something as astounding as the Brazilian boom of the 1960’s and 1970’s soon yielded to economic difficulties that did not respond to further public ministrations. Military governments learned what empirical studies have proved to scholars, that the records of military regimes essentially were no better than those of civilian regimes. Uruguay;military dictatorship

Further Reading

  • Brito, Alexandra Barahona de. Human Rights and Democratization in Latin America: Uruguay and Chile. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. The author provides a scholarly examination of the challenges of governmental transition, comparing the Uruguayan situation to that of Chile. Bibliography and index.
  • Kaufman, Edy. Uruguay in Transition: From Civilian to Military Rule. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1979. This is a methodologically explicit, decision-making case study of variables that help to account for the transition of democratic Uruguay to a military dictatorship. Despite the academic trappings, the text is readily understandable to the general reader.
  • Servicio Paz y Justicia, Uruguay. Uruguay nunca más: Human Rights Violations, 1972-1985. Translated by Elizabeth Hampsten. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992. A Uruguayan peace organization documents the human rights atrocities that occurred under military dictatorship. Includes useful appendixes, bibliography, and index.
  • Sosnowski, Saúl, and Louise B. Popkin, eds. Repression, Exile, and Democracy: Uruguayan Culture. Translated by Louise B. Popkin. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993. Cultural examination of the Uruguayan dictatorship and its aftermath. Bibliography.
  • Weinstein, Martin. Uruguay: Democracy at the Crossroads. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1988. From the vantage point of twenty years of close study of Uruguay, political scientist Weinstein presents an insightful summation of political events in Uruguay as they have played themselves out in recent times. This is the best single source in English on the subject of this article.

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