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Uruguay Vote Strongly Backs Amnesty : Unofficial Results Show Retention of Law That Pardons Officers

Times Staff Writer

Choosing to put the past behind them, Uruguayans voted overwhelmingly Sunday to uphold a law granting amnesty to military officers for human rights abuses during a 12-year military dictatorship.

By a resounding 58% to 42%, according to unofficial projections, voters turned back a citizens’ initiative that would have repealed the law and prosecuted officers accused of killings, torture and wrongful detention.

With more than 80% of the votes counted, 922,185 were in favor of amnesty and 678,087 favored repealing the law.

The referendum brought to an end a two-year debate that engulfed this nation of 3.1 million people, whose century-old democratic tradition was interrupted in 1973 when the military seized power after years of urban guerrilla turmoil.

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The campaign captured the attention of Latin American countries that also made the transition from military to civilian rule in the 1980s.

‘End of the Transition’

“This is the end of the transition to democracy,” said Vice President Enrique Tarigo, a leader of the campaign to affirm the amnesty law. “Now that the law is confirmed, we no longer have any serious problems left from the past, and we can look to the present and the future.”

“The people have expressed themselves freely, and we are going to respect this democratic outcome,” said Matilde Rodriguez, widow of a slain politician, who helped launch the citizens’ initiative. She added that the substantial vote to repeal the amnesty showed that “an enormous proportion of our citizens share a great concern for human rights violations and a firm desire that they will never happen again in this country.”

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Rodriguez’s husband, Hector Gutierrez, the former Speaker of the lower chamber of Congress, was assassinated in 1976 in Buenos Aires, allegedly by Uruguayan soldiers.

Despite a day of sometimes driving rain, most of the nation’s 2.3 million eligible voters crowded into polling stations. Votes for the green ballots, in favor of repealing amnesty, won narrowly in the capital of Montevideo but lost to the yellow ballots by margins of about 2 to 1 in rural areas.

Norberto Rodino, a 24-year-old laborer in the small farming town of Libertad, 35 miles west of Montevideo, expressed the prevailing view: “What happened, happened.

“We won’t win anything by dwelling on the past,” he said after casting a yellow ballot--to uphold the amnesty law--in a polling station.

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The movement to repeal the amnesty law began soon after Congress approved it in December, 1986, in the face of the military’s refusal to allow officers to testify in cases that were about to come to trial. The military argued that it had acted honorably in crushing the threat by the Tupamaros, a guerrilla movement that carried out bombings, kidnapings and assassinations starting in 1965.

The repeal campaign contended that despite the virtual liquidation of the Tupamaro leadership by 1973, the military government committed widespread rights abuses for 12 more years in suppressing all dissent. Supporters of the repeal argued that offenders should be tried and judged, to prevent such abuses from recurring.

President Julio Sanguinetti, his ruling Colorado Party and most of the main opposition Blanco Party appealed to voters to sustain the amnesty law, saying that it complements an amnesty granted in 1985 for the guerrillas.

Sanguinetti argued that rejecting the amnesty would mire the country in turmoil over past events and alienate the military, while sustaining the law “would be the final step in the transition to democracy in Uruguay.”

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The amnesty ended some 40 cases involving about 180 officers, accused in some of the 132 “disappearances” of Uruguayan activists and the jailing of thousands more, many of whom were subjected to physical and psychological torture, according to human rights groups.

Uruguayans had long boasted that their small, peaceable country was the Switzerland of South America, with the continent’s strongest democratic tradition. Nearly a century of civilian rule was ended with the onset of the guerrilla turmoil and the military repression. But Sunday’s orderly voting reflected the depth of the revived democratic conviction.

In the handsome--if decaying--capital, the people of Montevideo patiently awaited their turns to cast green or yellow ballots. A few soldiers or sailors stood guard at the polling stations, in keeping with Latin American tradition, but stayed well clear of the voting procedure. Observers from each campaign sat with citizen coordinators at the polling tables, monitoring the vote. No one even raised the possibility of fraud.

Sanguinetti, in a brief national address minutes after the polls closed, said: “This peaceful vote today raises our republic to the level of its great traditions.”

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Noting that debates on amnesty have followed many social conflicts in Latin America and elsewhere, he added, “In few places have such questions been decided in peace, by the ballot.”

Blanca Monilla, a 60-year-old woman, said she voted to uphold the law because “if there is amnesty for those who killed and started the war in this country, then there must be absolution for the military who fought them. Otherwise, we will never start looking forward.”

Sharing His Drink

Earlier in the day, Marti Dalgalarrondo, a monitor for the repeal campaign in Libertad, shared his gourd of mate --a tea-like brew--with a soldier sitting nearby. Then the mate gourd, an addiction for Uruguayans of all political colors, was passed among the other election table officials.

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“Despite the differences we have, we live together here with no problems. That is the history of Uruguay,” Dalgalarrondo said.

His counterpart for the yellow campaign, Susan Silveira, a 22-year-old law student, agreed that there would be no recriminations, since the process was a legal and peaceful democratic expression.

“I would like to see torturers put in jail, sure, but we need to deal with other, more urgent problems now, like improving the economy,” she said. “I know there were abuses. But they gave amnesty to both sides. Now, to start judging just one side. . . .”


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