Vote Seen Upholding Uruguay Amnesty : Early Results Indicate Retention of Law That Pardons Officers

Times Staff Writer

Early, unofficial projections indicated that Uruguayans voted Sunday to uphold a law granting amnesty to military officers for human rights abuses during a 12-year military dictatorship, thus rejecting an initiative to bring the officers to trial.

All three private television stations predicted a solid victory in the national referendum for the “yellow” vote--to affirm the 1986 amnesty law. The “green” vote--in favor of repealing the law--appeared to be headed for defeat by a margin of as much as 60% to 40%, the television analyses showed.

Despite a day of sometimes driving rain, most of the nation’s 2.3 million eligible voters crowded into polling stations to cast ballots on an issue that has dominated the nation’s political life for more than two years.

A citizens’ initiative, backed by leftist parties, gathered 630,000 signatures--more than 25% of the electorate--to force a vote on whether to repeal the amnesty approved by the nation’s Congress in December, 1986.


Response to Terror

That law blocked trials of officers accused of murder, torture or wrongful detention during the military-dominated regime from 1973 until civilian rule was restored in 1985. The military seized control in response to a terror campaign by the Tupamaros, the region’s first and most audacious urban guerrilla movement, beginning in 1965.

The repeal campaign contends that despite the virtual liquidation of the Tupamaro leadership by 1973, the military government committed widespread rights abuses for 12 more years in repressing all dissent. The offenders must be tried and judged, repeal supporters say, to prevent such repression from recurring.

President Julio Sanguinetti, his ruling Colorado Party and most of the main opposition Blanco Party have 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 law would mire the country in persecutions over past events and alienate the military, while sustaining the law “would be the final step in the transition to democracy in Uruguay.”


The amnesty ended 40 cases involving about 180 officers, accused in some of the 132 “disappearances” of Uruguayan activists and the jailing of thousands. The military had made clear that officers would not appear in court, threatening a showdown with the newly elected government, and Sanguinetti put together a congressional majority in favor of amnesty just before the first case was to come to trial.

Uruguayans had long boasted that their small, peaceable country of 3.1 million people was the Switzerland of South America, with the continent’s strongest democratic tradition. Nearly a century of civilian rule ended with the onset of guerrilla turmoil and the subsequent military repression.

Sunday’s voting reflected the depth of that revived democratic conviction.

In the capital, citizens patiently awaited their turns to cast the green ballots in favor of repeal or yellow in favor of upholding the amnesty. 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 each table, monitoring the vote. No one even raised the possibility of fraud.


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

Montevideo, with more than one million voters--just under half the registered total--was the stronghold of the green campaign, while rural areas in this cattle-raising and farming nation were more heavily for the yellow. The young were more often in favor of trials for the military than older Uruguayans.

Blanco 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.”

In Libertad, a farming town 35 miles west of the capital, the monitor for the repeal campaign, Marti Dalgalarrondo, shared his gourd of mate, a tea-like brew, with a soldier sitting nearby. Then the mate gourd, an tradition for Uruguayans of all political colors, was passed among the other election table officials.


“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 whatever the outcome, there would be no recriminations, since the process was a legal and peaceful democratic expression.

‘Torturers in Jail’

“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. . . .”


Dalgalarrondo responded by noting that Libertad was the site of a prison that held thousands of Uruguayans political prisoners for years, while the armed forces had never been held accountable or punished for their offenses.

“Without justice, there can be neither bread nor democracy,” he said. Even if the repeal movement loses, he added, “It has already been an important achievement to get to the stage where the people could give their views on this question.”