Civic-military dictatorship of Uruguay

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Civic-military Dictatorship of Uruguay
Dictadura cívico-militar en Uruguay
Flag Coat of arms
"Libertad o Muerte" (Spanish)
"Freedom or Death"
Capital Montevideo
Languages Spanish
Government Military dictatorship
 •  1973–1976 Juan María Bordaberry
 •  1976 Alberto Demicheli
 •  1976–1981 Aparicio Méndez
 •  1981–1985 Gregorio Conrado Álvarez
Historical era Cold War
 •  Established June 27, 1973
 •  Disestablished February 28, 1985
Currency Uruguayan peso

The civic-military dictatorship of Uruguay (1973–85), also known as the Uruguayan Dictatorship, was an authoritarian military dictatorship that ruled Uruguay for twelve years, from June 27, 1973 (after the 1973 coup d'état) until February 28, 1985. The dictatorship has been the subject of much controversy due to its violations of human rights, use of torture, and the unexplained disappearances of many Uruguayans.[1] The term "civic-military" refers to the military regime's initial use of a relatively powerless civilian President as the head of state, which distinguished it from dictatorships in other South American countries in which senior military officers immediately seized power and directly served as Head of State.

The dictatorship was the culmination of an escalation of violence and authoritarism in a traditionally peaceful and democratic country, and should be analyzed in the context of the Cold War and other military dictatorships in the region. It resulted in the suppression of all former political activity, including the traditional political parties. Many people were imprisoned and tortured, especially left-wingers.[2]

Political situation in Uruguay[edit]

The slow road to dictatorship started in late 1960s. Between 1952 and 1967, the country experimented with a collective presidency. The National Council of Government had nine members, six from the majority party and three from the opposition. That provided for a weak leadership during worsening economic situation in the country. After the re-establishment of the Presidency, the new President Óscar Diego Gestido, in December 1967, banned the Socialist Party of Uruguay. To suppress leftist activists, President Jorge Pacheco Areco (1967–1972) banned leftist political parties and their newspapers, purged liberal professors from universities, and suppressed labor unions. His repressive politics as well as the crisis in economy and high inflation fueled social conflict and guerrilla Tupamaro activities. On June 13, 1968, Pacheco declared a state of emergency. More states of emergency was declared in August 1970, after Tupamaros killed US security expert Dan Mitrione, and in January 1971, when they kidnapped UK ambassador Geoffrey Jackson. When more than 100 Tupamaros escaped from jail, on September 9, 1971 Pacheco, ordered the army to suppress all guerrilla activities.[3] To coordinate their anti-guerrilla actions, the armed forces created Junta de Comandates en Jefe which was the first military coordination body independent of the usual Ministry of Defense oversight. Later, it evolved into Estado Mayour Conjunto (ESMACO).[4]

Between 1968 and 1971, expenses on military doubled from 13.3% of the budget to 26.2% while expenses on education fell from 24.3% to 16%.[5]

In November 1971, general elections were held. In response to Pacheco's effort to change the constitution and to run for re-election, leftist parties created Broad Front. In the controversial election, Wilson Ferreira Aldunate won more votes than the Pacheco's handpicked successor and the eventual winner of the elections, Juan María Bordaberry, from the Colorado Party.[6] Immediately, Bordaberry was perceived as a weak president.

Bordaberry presidency: 1972-1973[edit]

After becoming President in March 1, 1972 the inexperienced Bordaberry had to concentrate on fighting Tupamaros and chose to continue oppressive policies of Pacheco. On April 15, 1972, he declared a state of "internal war" and suspended civil liberties. That was then extended by the National Assembly in September 1972, November 1972, and March 1973. On July 10, 1972 a new State Security law came into force and allowed political prisoners to be tried in military courts. Army officers assumed more responsibilities in government.

By the end of the year, the army had effectively destroyed Tupamaros and their leader, Raúl Sendic, was imprisoned. Most of the Tupamaro leaders spent 12 years in prison and later become prominent politicians.

Torture was effectively used to gather information needed to break up the Tupamaros and against trade union activists, members of the Communist Party and even regular citizens.

On June 22, 1972, the National Assembly decided to investigate allegations of torture and human-rights violations by military. In response, military refused to cooperate with this investigation and persuaded Bordaberry to establish a joint military commission that would investigate corruption by politicians.

Coup of 1973[edit]

During the few years when it was granted extraordinary powers, Uruguayan military had acquired a taste for political power and began to behave independently

In late 1972, Bordaberry tried to limit military's political powers. In an October 19, 1972 meeting with military chiefs, Bordaberry was presented with eight-point program in which military demanded the immovability of commanding officers, military participation in state enterprises, independence of military corruption investigation, and military control over police.[7]

On February 8, 1973, Bordaberry tried to assert his authority over military and appointed a retired general, Antinio Francese, as the new Minister of National Defense. The Navy initially supported the appointment while the Army and Air Force commanders rejected it outright and on February 9 and 10 issued public proclamations in which they demanded radical changes in country's political and economic system. They promised to end unemployment, support local industry, eliminate corruption, implement land reform and end all terrorism.

Bordaberry bowed to the pressure, and on February 12, in the Air Force headquarters, concluded an agreement with the armed force commanders to provide for their involvement in politics in advisory role. A new National Security Council (COSENA) was created, consisting of Army, Air Force and Navy commanders as well as ministers of National Defense, Interior, Economics and Foreign Affairs. From now on, they effectively were in control of the country. Bordaberry had saved his post by participating in a self-coup.



Uruguay's democratically-elected Parliament continued working until June 27, 1973, when it was dismissed for resisting the military regime. Bordaberry created a new Council of State and put the military in control over civilian life. The new dictatorship was inspired by Brazilian military government, which said that the Cold War allowed all means to defeat the Left and Communists.[8]

The COSENA was the de facto governing body, meeting every week and approving policies while the JOG (Junta de Oficiales Generales) was the source of the power. By 1977, it consisted of 28 members mostly army generals, air force brigadiers and navy admirals. To secure its rule, on December 6, 1976, a new Council of the Nation was created by uniting the Council of the State and the JOG.

The regime's promises to improve the economy were dashed by the global crisis caused by the 1973 oil crisis. Uruguay started borrowing money from international lenders, chiefly from the US. Opening of the small local economy to global corporations and financial institutions ruined local Uruguayan companies, who could no longer compete. The regime was forced to borrow even more and cut budget expenditures. By 1981, the country of 3 million people owed US$ 4 billion.[9]

Bordaberry, whose political career was notable for opportunism, became a greater advocate of dictatorship than even the military officers. After he proposed the project of a new undemocratic constitution, he was removed from his post in June 1976.[10]

He was succeeded by Alberto Demicheli, the head of the Council of State who, while a relative liberal among the ruling group, canceled the elections that were supposed to take place in 1976. However, he refused to sign a law removing political rights of thousands of politicians. In his place, on September 1, 1976, a senior politician, Aparicio Méndez, was appointed president.

The Minister of Economy and Finance, Alejandro Végh Villegas, tried to improve economy by promoting the finance sector and foreign investment. Social spending was cut, with many state companies privatized. However, after 1980, the economy deteriorated, GDP fell by 20% and unemployment rose to 17%. The state stepped in and bailed out many collapsing businesses and banks. The failure of the regime to improve the economy further weakened its position.[11]

In August 1977, the armed forces announced its plan for reorganizing Uruguayan democracy. Only two traditional parties, the National Party and the Colorado Party were to exist, and the president would be elected from a single, pre-approved candidate. In 1980, the regime proposed the Constitution in to a 1980 referendum. In a shock to the regime, 57,2% of voters voted against the proposal. The vote marked the start of negotiated return to democracy. The military's belief that it needed to legitimize their proposed constitution by holding an actual referendum but lost, as opposed to simply falsifying the voting results, was itself an indication that democracy was not quite dead yet in Uruguay.

On September 1, 1981, General Gregorio Conrado Álvarez, who was secretary of the National Security Council since 1973 and Commander-in-Chief of Uruguayan Armed forces from 1978 to 1979, assumed the presidency. He began negotiations with civilian politicians about returning power to elected officials. On June 7, 1982, a law allowed the traditional political parties (Blancos, Colorados, and Civic Union Party) to resume their activities, but leftist parties remained banned. On November 28, elections were held to elect representatives to political party conventions, which then were expected to select new leaders, who then would be allowed to participate in the presidential elections of 1984.[12]

In 1983, workers and labor unions were allowed to demonstrate on May 1. From May to July 1983, political parties and military officers held negotiations in Park Hotel without any results. In November 27, 1983, a massive street demonstration was allowed in Montevideo with approximately 500,000 people participating.

Return to democracy, 1984-1985[edit]

In 1984, there were strikes against the regime and in support of political prisoners. On January 13, 1984, the first 24-hour general strike since 1973 was organized. Talks between military leadership and civilian politicians intensified despite the fact that several political leaders were still notable, such as Wilson Ferreira Aldunate. On August 3, 1984, the Naval Club Pact was signed and restored the constitution of 1967 and allowed the military to advise in security matters and control appointments of senior officers. The military also received blanket amnesty for human rights violations.[13]

On November 25, 1984, elections were held, and following the brief presidency of Rafael Addiego Bruno, on March 1, 1985, Colorado Party candidate Julio Maria Sanguinetti became the new president.

The first Sanguinetti administration implemented economic reforms and consolidated democratization following the country's years under military rule. Nonetheless, Sanguinetti never supported the human rights violations accusations, and his government did not prosecute the military officials who engaged in repression and torture against either the Tupamaros or the MLN. Instead, he opted for signing an amnesty treaty, called in Spanish "Ley de Amnistia."

Oppression and emigration[edit]

During the dictatorship, more than 5000 people were arrested for political reasons and almost 10% of Uruguayans emigrated from the country. Torture extended until the end of Uruguayan dictatorship in 1985. Uruguay had the highest number per capita of political prisoners in the world. Almost 20% of population were arrested for shorter or longer periods. MLN heads were isolated in prisons and subjected to repeated acts of torture. Emigration from Uruguay rose drastically, as large numbers of Uruguayans looked for political asylum throughout the world.

Around 180 Uruguayans are known to have been killed during the 12-year military rule from 1973-1985.[14] Most were killed in Argentina and other neighbouring countries, with only 36 of them having been killed in Uruguay.[15] Many of those killed were never found, and the missing people have been referred to as the "disappeared", or "desaparecidos" in Spanish. The Museo de la Memoria, in Montevideo, commemorates those who were murdered or disappeared under the regime.


The legacy of the dictatorship still gives rise to debate and controversy. In the conversations that led to the Naval Club Pact, the idea was floated that the military would release its power on the condition that those involved would not be prosecuted for their actions during the dictatorship. Many considered it unacceptable, but a political crisis that eventually menaced Uruguay's relatively fragile new democratic government during the redemocratization process led to the controversial enactment in 1986 of the Law on the Expiration of the Punitive Claims of the State (Spanish: Ley de Caducidad de la Pretensión Punitiva del Estado), which is still in force:[16] in 1989 and 2009, Uruguayans voted in referenda twice to keep the law, which detractors consider to be plain impunity.[17]

In 2006, former President Bordaberry was arrested for his involvement in murder of four opposition members in Argentina, conducted as a part of Operation Condor. In February 2010, he was sentenced to 30 years for violating the Constitution by participating on the 1973 coup.[18]

See also[edit]