Uruguay Jubilant Over Return to Democracy : Sanguinetti Takes Presidential Oath, Ending 12 Years of Brutal Military Rule

Times Staff Writer

Tiny Uruguay returned to democracy Friday amid national jubilation, warm international applause, and a warning from its new president of hard times ahead.

A 12-year military dictatorship as brutal as it was atypical for this country, expired unmourned in bright sunshine over this flag-decked capital as Julio Sanguinetti, a pragmatic, 49-year-old lawyer, began a five-year presidential term.

Uruguay, a pastoral land of 3 million people sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina, thus became the eighth Latin American nation to return to elected civilian government since 1979. As fresh evidence of a hardening trend, Sanguinetti’s inauguration attracted international attention disproportionate to his country’s size or importance.


High-level delegations attended from more than 60 countries, including eight heads of government from Latin America and Western Europe.

Agreement to Meet

Among the guests were Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who agreed to meet here early this morning to air their countries’ differences.

Earlier this week, Ortega, who has become the darling of leftists here, announced that Nicaragua would send home 100 Cuban military advisers and limit future purchases of weapons systems as part of a regional peace initiative. The United States responded coolly to what it described as half-hearted, token measures.

Both Shultz and Ortega said Thursday, though, that they would be willing to talk here, and on Friday their aides arranged a meeting for this morning at Ortega’s request. American officials told reporters they expected that Shultz would mostly listen to what the Sandinista leader had to say. Shultz and Ortega are staying just two floors apart in the same downtown hotel.

In the mahogany-paneled chamber of the Uruguayan Congress on Friday, the Americans and Nicaraguans joined other dignitaries as diverse as a British baroness, Bulgarian and Israeli Cabinet ministers, and an Indonesian diplomat, to witness Uruguay’s historic turning.

“It will not be possible to achieve miracles, but we must make the effort,” said Sanguinetti in a 35-minute inaugural address punctuated by theatrical gestures that bespoke both the florid nature of Uruguayan politics and the ancestral roots of its practitioners. Spain and Italy, to which many Uruguayans trace their ancestry, both sent their prime ministers to the inauguration.


‘Our Way of Life’

“Democracy is our way of life, our reason for being,” Sanguinetti proclaimed, but he warned that democratic precepts are likely be severely tested “in the next five hard and difficult years.” He added, “Everyone knows that Latin America is enduring the worst economic crisis of this century.”

Until 1973, when a military coup took place amid economic decline and urban terrorism, Uruguay had ranked for nearly all of this century among the most steadfastly democratic of nations.

Civilian opposition to military rule never flagged despite ferocious repression that included torture and long prison terms for the regime’s political foes. Last year, with the military under civilian pressure because of renewed economic crisis, Sanguinetti was the principal architect of an agreement between major political parties and the armed forces for a measured return to elected government.

In November elections, Sanguinetti’s center-right Colorado Party won the presidency with about 40% of the vote, and more seats than any other party in both houses of the new Congress. The 70,000-member armed forces will have no decision-making authority in the new government, but they remain a power to be reckoned with politically as Sanguinetti seeks to dismantle the vestiges of authoritarian rule.

Amnesty Promised

Among his promised early actions will be an amnesty for most of the approximately 270 political prisoners inherited from the military government and the lifting of proscriptions against about 3,000 Uruguayans whose civil rights have been suspended.

In the name of full democracy, Sanguinetti will also legalize the Communist Party--which, running under another name, won two seats in the 31-member Senate--and restore to government jobs about 10,000 people fired by the military for their politics.


Sanguinetti’s pledge in his inaugural address “to have relations with all countries without ideological restrictions” will mean renewed diplomatic ties with Cuba.

As he made plain Friday, it will be dollars-and-cents economics that will most preoccupy him as president.

“The only way to pay our debt is through growth,” he said.

A largely middle-class, heavily socialized nation, Uruguay has seen living standards erode constantly for more than two decades. Real income today is no higher than it was in the mid-1960s. Inflation is climbing beyond 80% a year, unemployment is around 15%, and there is no economic growth to speak of.

The country’s foreign debt of $5.8 billion is one of the highest in the world in per capita terms, and its re-negotiation is one of the new government’s first priorities.

Major Party Backing

Sanguinetti, who has won honeymoon support from other major parties for an economic stabilization program, looks to export-led growth as a means of reinvigorating the economy. He will seek a reduction of inflation and of the government’s deficit by tax reforms, better performance among state-owned enterprises and by a reduction in government expenses, particularly in military spending.

In his address Friday, Sanguinetti appealed for national unity to solidly re-establish democracy, “exiling fear so destructive of the human spirit; fear and its offspring, violence. We must build a society without fear--as it always was.”


Saying that there is no way that the economic difficulties can be sugarcoated, Sanguinetti insisted that he is nevertheless convinced that they can be successfully confronted in the context of democracy.

“My greatest ambition is to turn over power to an elected successor five years from today,” Sanguinetti said.