Civic-military dictatorship of Uruguay

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Oriental Republic of Uruguay
República Oriental del Uruguay
Motto: "Libertad o Muerte" (Spanish)
"Freedom or Death"
Location of Uruguay
Common languagesSpanish
GovernmentUnitary presidential republic under a military dictatorship
• 1973–1976
Juan María Bordaberry
• 1976
Alberto Demicheli
• 1976–1981
Aparicio Méndez
• 1981–1985
Gregorio Conrado Álvarez
Historical eraCold War
• Established
June 27, 1973
• Disestablished
March 1, 1985
HDI (1980)0.658[1]
CurrencyPeso (1973−1975)
Nuevo peso (1975−1985)
ISO 3166 codeUY
Succeeded by

The civic-military dictatorship of Uruguay (1973–85), also known as the Uruguayan Dictatorship, was an authoritarian military dictatorship that ruled Uruguay for 12 years, from June 27, 1973 (after the U.S. backed 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.[2] The term "civic-military" refers to the military regime's relatively gradual usurpation of power from civilian presidents who continued to serve as head of state,[3] 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 authoritarianism in a traditionally peaceful and democratic country, and existed within the context of 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 Uruguayans with left-wing sympathies.[4]

Political situation in Uruguay[edit]

The slow road to dictatorship started in the 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. It provided weak leadership in the midst of a worsening economic situation.

After the re-establishment of the Presidency, the new President Óscar Diego Gestido was unable to improve economic conditions. He died in December 1967, six months after taking office. His constitutional successor, President Jorge Pacheco Areco (1967–1972) banned the Socialist Party of Uruguay, other leftist organizations 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 far-left guerrilla activity; the latter of which manifested in the form of the Tupamaros. On June 13, 1968, Pacheco declared a state of emergency. In between a far-right student organization was born, the Juventud Uruguaya de Pie. More states of emergency were 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.[5] 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 Mayor Conjunto (ESMACO).[6]

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%.[7]

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 Pacheco's handpicked successor, Juan María Bordaberry from the Colorado Party.[8] However, owing to the Ley de Lemas multi-candidate system, Bordaberry became president when Colorado candidates received a combined 12,800 more votes than the combined vote of Ferreira's National Party. Immediately, Bordaberry was perceived as a weak president.

Bordaberry presidency: 1972-1973[edit]

After becoming president on March 1, 1972, the inexperienced Bordaberry had to concentrate on fighting Tupamaros and chose to continue Pacheco's repressive policies. 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 the Tupamaros and their leader, Raúl Sendic, was imprisoned. Most of the Tupamaro leaders spent 12 years in prison and later became 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 of Uruguay 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, the 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, the Uruguayan military had acquired a taste for political power and began to behave independently of the civilian authorities.

In late 1972, Bordaberry tried to limit the military's political powers. In an October 19, 1972 meeting with military chiefs, Bordaberry was presented with an eight-point program in which the military demanded the immovability of commanding officers, military participation in state enterprises, independence of military corruption investigation, and military control over police.[6]

On February 8, 1973, Bordaberry tried to assert his authority over the military and appointed a retired general, Antonio 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 the 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.[9]

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.[7]

Bordaberry, whose political career was notable for opportunism, gradually became even more authoritarian than the military commanders. In June 1976, he proposed a new, corporatist constitution that would have permanently shuttered the parties and codified a permanent role for the military. This was further than even the military wanted to go, and it forced him to resign.[10][11]

He was succeeded by Alberto Demicheli a Colorado and 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 of the National Party, 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.[12]

In August 1977, the armed forces announced its plan for reorganizing Uruguayan democracy. Only two traditional parties, the Blancos and Colorados, were to exist, and the president would be elected from a single, pre-approved candidate. In 1980, the regime put its plan to the voters via a 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, 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.[13]

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. On 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.[14]

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 Amnistía."

Oppression and emigration[edit]

Uruguay's disappeared people

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 to 1985.[15] Most were killed in Argentina and other neighbouring countries, with only 36 of them having been killed in Uruguay.[16] 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.


Media and literature[edit]

During the years of the dictatorship, censorship was heavily placed on Uruguayan people. Censorship was being institutionalized by the government, infiltrated into every corner of society. Since 1976, the government started implementing censorship on press media.[17] Media constantly faced threats of closure and interrogation. News companies had to submit its journalists', editors' and staffs' names to the Ministry of Education and Culture with a clear statement of its publication objectives and financial sources.[18] Articles or publications which intended to damage the reputation of national prestige is forbidden, especially regard to the report on Tupamaro urban guerrillas. Open information on Tupamaro needed to be drawn from government sources.[19] At the same time, censorship on literature works reached to the strictest level in Uruguayan history. The numbers of professional writers were detained by the government exceeded any previous period in the history. The illiberal political environment forced many influential writers to move out of the country to publish their works. Mario Benedetti, the most prominent Uruguayan novelist, lived in exile in Peru, Cuba and Spain. He wrote considerable influential novels to criticize the strict censorship under the Civic-Military dictatorship, calling for a non-violent opposition in the country.[20]

Music and radio[edit]

As the written works became increasingly hard to get published, writers turned articles into songs. As the consequence, the regime started carrying out more censoring measures on music and radio station. The government did not send out an official public announcement on banning music and broadcasting. However, music and radio stations sensed increasing pressure from the government. The radio station began with receiving police notice if they broadcast sensitive songs. Then the music and radio station started self-censorship when some representative composers or music station's staffs were sentenced by the government. The arrest of songwriters forced other performers of protest songs to leave the country and radio stations stopped broadcasting any music due to social conformity.[21]


Apart from censoring intellectual works, the government under Civic-Military dictatorship attempted to restructure the national educational system for the goal of prioritizing "moral and civic education". In 1969, Professor Acosta y Lara took the Secondary Education Council under control. He had a tight political alliance with the regime, who actively attack students' dissents. In 1972, the controversial General Education law passed, which eliminated autonomy of education councils.[22] Since then, staffs from the Education council started patrolling schools and wearing armbands. Security personnel from the Education council strictly monitored student activities and class discussions. Moreover, the state imposed stringent syllabus, censored textbook and evaluated students' performance based on their ideological attachment to the regime.[18] A computerized system allocated a letter of designation of democratic faith (A, B or C) to people according to their levels of ideological loyalty.[23]

After the return to democracy, Uruguayan people are calling for establishing June 27 as a national day to memorialize this silent and dark history in their country. Uruguayan people hope that through the establishment of the national day can re-emphasize their commitment to truth, justice and transparency.[24]


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:[25] in 1989 and 2009, Uruguayans voted in referendum twice to keep the law, which detractors consider to be plain impunity.[26]

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.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Human Development Report 2014" (PDF).
  2. ^ "History of Uruguay". Retrieved 25 October 2015.
  3. ^ Renfrew, Daniel (2018). Life Without Lead: Contamination, Crisis, and Hope in Uruguay. Oakland: University of California Press. p. 240. ISBN 9780520295476. Retrieved 24 June 2020.
  4. ^ "URUGUAY - THE MILITARY GOVERNMENT". Retrieved 25 October 2015.
  5. ^ "Uruguay - Pachequism, 1967-72".
  6. ^ a b Arceneaux, Craig L. (November 22, 2001). Bounded Missions: Military Regimes and Democratization in the Southern Cone and Brazil. Penn State Press. ISBN 0271021039 – via Google Books.
  7. ^ a b Galván, Javier A. (January 1, 2013). Latin American Dictators of the 20th Century: The Lives and Regimes of 15 Rulers. McFarland. ISBN 9781476600161 – via Google Books.
  8. ^ "Uruguay - English".
  9. ^ Schumacher, Edward (1984-02-13). "WAIT GOES ON FOR URUGUAYAN WHO FELL OUT OF STEP". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-10-25.
  10. ^ Gunson, Phil (July 19, 2011). "Juan María Bordaberry obituary" – via
  11. ^ Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain. Hudson, Rex A.; Meditz, Sandra W., eds. (December 1993). "The Military Government, 1973-85". Uruguay: A country study. Federal Research Division, Library of Congress. LCCN 92006702.
  12. ^ "Uruguay - The Military's Economic Record".
  13. ^ "Uruguay: voters cast ballots for 'end to military dictatorship'". December 3, 1982 – via Christian Science Monitor.
  14. ^ Pact of the Naval Club
  15. ^ "New find in Uruguay 'missing' dig". BBC News. December 3, 2005. Retrieved 2011-02-04.
  16. ^ "Uruguay dig finds 'disappeared'". BBC News. November 30, 2005. Retrieved 2011-02-04.
  17. ^ Alexander, Robert Jackson; Parker, Eldon M. (2005-01-01). A History of Organized Labor in Uruguay and Paraguay. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 9780275977450.
  18. ^ a b Jones, Derek (2001-12-01). Censorship: A World Encyclopedia. Routledge. ISBN 9781136798641.
  19. ^ The Associated Press (1972-10-08). "Survey Shows That Restrictions on News Media in Major Countries in Latin America Have Increased". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-10-25.
  20. ^ Müller, Beate (2004-01-01). Censorship & Cultural Regulation in the Modern Age. Rodopi. ISBN 978-9042009882.
  21. ^ Sosnowski, Saúl (1993-01-01). Repression, Exile, and Democracy: Uruguayan Culture. Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0822312680.
  22. ^ Delgado, Mario (1979-01-01). "Uruguay: Against reason". Index on Censorship. 8 (1): 49–51. doi:10.1080/03064227908532882. ISSN 0306-4220. S2CID 145062050.
  23. ^ Lessa, Francesca; Payne, Leigh A. (2012-05-28). Amnesty in the Age of Human Rights Accountability: Comparative and International Perspectives. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781107025004.
  24. ^ Goff, Francesca Lessa, Pierre-Louis Le. "A silent anniversary in Uruguay?". Retrieved 2016-10-25.
  25. ^ "Uruguay Annual Report 2011". Amnesty International. Retrieved 28 October 2013.
  26. ^ "A brief history of Uruguay's Expiry Law". London School of Economics. Retrieved 28 October 2013.
  27. ^ Garces, Raul O. (July 18, 2011). "Former Uruguayan dictator Juan Maria Bordaberry dies" – via