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Uruguay - History

The only inhabitants of Uruguay before European colonization of the area were the Charrua Indians, a small tribe driven south by the Guarani Indians of Paraguay. The Spanish discovered the territory of present-day Uruguay in 1516, but the Indians' fierce resistance to conquest, combined with the absence of gold and silver, limited settlement in the region during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Spanish introduced cattle, which became a source of wealth in the region. Spanish colonization increased as Spain sought to limit Portugal's expansion of Brazil's frontiers.

Montevideo was founded by the Spanish in the early 18th century as a military stronghold; its natural harbor soon developed into a commercial center competing with Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires. Uruguay's early 19th century history was shaped by ongoing conflicts between the British, Spanish, Portuguese, and colonial forces for dominance in the Argentina-Brazil-Uruguay region. In 1811, Jose Gervasio Artigas, who became Uruguay's national hero, launched a successful revolt against Spain. In 1821, the Provincia Oriental del Rio de la Plata, present-day Uruguay, was annexed to Brazil by Portugal. The Provincia declared independence from Brazil in August 25, 1825 (after numerous revolts in 1821, 1823, and 1825) but decided to adhere to a regional federation with Argentina.

The regional federation defeated Brazil after a 3-year war. The 1828 Treaty of Montevideo, fostered by the United Kingdom, gave birth to Uruguay as an independent state. The nation's first constitution was adopted in 1830. The remainder of the 19th century, under a series of elected and appointed presidents, saw interventions by neighboring states, political and economic fluctuations, and large inflows of immigrants, mostly from Europe. Jose Batlle y Ordonez, president from 1903 to 1907 and again from 1911 to 1915, set the pattern for Uruguay's modern political development. He established widespread political, social, and economic reforms such as a welfare program, government participation in many facets of the economy, and a plural executive. Some of these reforms were continued by his successors.

In the late 1960s, a long accumulation of deteriorating political and economic factors produced severe social and labor unrest and the rise of the National Liberation Movement - Tupamaros (MLN-T), a guerrilla group that began a campaign of urban terrorism. These conditions gradually ushered in a process of steadily increasing military involvement in the country's political life. Initially, the police were charged with suppressing the insurgency, but proved unable to stem the escalating wave of kidnappings, bombings, and assassinations. Successive Colorado Party Presidents Jorge Pacheco (1967-72) and Juan Bordaberry (1972-76) resorted to states of siege that permitted the military to act in the name of "national security" with scant regard for civil liberties and laws.

During this period Tupamaros kidnapped three American embassy employees, including Dan Mitrione who, in 1971, was killed by the Tupamaros and later slandered in leftist circles as a "CIA torturer." In September 1971, President Pacheco called on the military to take primary responsibility for the fight against the Tupamaros. The armed forces were well equipped for the task and virtually wiped out the insurgency within a matter of months.

However, once engaged, the military viewed its mandate as one to re-establish internal order at all costs and embarked on a campaign to purge the country of "undesirable leftists, opposition and union elements." Constitutional safeguards, suspended during the declaration of "internal war," were prolonged by new legislation that put draconian controls on the media and on dissent. The new laws also by-passed normal legal protections and allowed for persons charged with crimes against national security to be detained and subject to trial in military courts. In June 1973, the military forced then-President Bordaberry to suspend the democratic process and accept military rule through a National Security Council (COSENA) composed of senior military officers and the ministers of Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs.

During the early and mid-dictatorship period, the military moved brutally against anyone it deemed as a threat to national security. An estimated 6,000 citizens were tried in military courts, and human rights groups charged that tens of thousands had been detained, denied legal rights, or were tortured. Some 300,000-400,000 Uruguayans reportedly fled into exile, and in some instances became victims of the security forces in neighboring countries. The number of Uruguay's "disappeared" persons during the "dirty war" is estimated by some at around 150 with at least 28 confirmed dead. The statistics, however, remain in dispute.

In 1980 under intense international pressure including from the U.S., military officials conducted a referendum to legitimize their rule through constitutional reform. The referendum failed, and negotiations began for a return to democracy. In 1984 the "Naval Club Pact" -- a political agreement between the armed forces and four political parties paved the way for the military to exit power.

In 1985 the military finally relinquished power following the election of Julio Maria Sanguinetti in October 1984. A blanket amnesty was granted to the Tupamaros and other opponents of the regime. But in the transition from a military dictatorship to a democracy, Uruguay still faced the dilemma of having to decide between prosecuting military officers for crimes committed under the period of military rule (and risk a military revolt) or granting them an amnesty.

In December 1986, Congress approved the Expiration Law ("Ley de Caducidad") that granted amnesty to members of the military and police for acts committed prior to March 1, 1985. Seen as an "impunity law" by its critics, the controversial measure was put to a public referendum on April 16, 1989 when citizens voted 57 percent in favor of keeping the law in effect. Successive governments of Luis Alberto Lacalle, Sanguinetti (second administration) and Jorge Batlle did relatively little to re-open investigations of human rights abuse cases, with the exception of Batlle's "Peace Commission" that was established to compile facts and helped him gain greater popularity.

On March 1, 2005 Tabare Vazquez took office and promised to pursue human rights issues, declaring, "We are not hostages to the past, but Uruguayan society needs to know what happened so that it never happens again."

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Page last modified: 18-05-2017 19:43:30 ZULU