Democratic Consolidation, 1985-90
The Sanguinetti government pursued a moderate and pragmatic approach to the nation's problems. Having inherited a US$4.9 billion foreign debt accrued almost entirely during the military regime, the Sanguinetti government focused on foreign trade. On April 1, 1986, after several months of negotiations among the principal parties--the ruling Colorados, the Blancos, the Broad Front, and the UC--the leaders signed an agreement to promote the country's economic and social development.
In August 1986, Sanguinetti, with the backing of his Colorado Party, submitted an unrestricted amnesty bill for the military and police to the General Assembly as an extension of the pardon granted to the Tupamaros. The government was able to obtain only fifty-five of the necessary sixty-six votes, however, so the proposal was rejected. The ruling Colorado Party then voted in favor of the bill sponsored by the National Party, which recommended trials only for those responsible for serious human rights violations. The Senate rejected the National Party bill as well, setting the stage for the worst political crisis in twenty months of democratic government. Lacking a majority in either of the two chambers, Sanguinetti met with opposition National Party leader Ferreira to attempt to reach a political solution on a number of points: the human rights issue; the extreme lack of expediency in General Assembly deliberations; interparty differences over the proposed national budget; and frequent clashes between the government and the opposition. In the first step leading to a resolution, the government and the National Party reached an agreement on the budget report, which the General Assembly subsequently approved.
In December 1986, after acrimonious debate (including fistfights in the Chamber of Representatives), the General Assembly approved the government's alternative to an amnesty, consisting of a "full stop" to the examination of human rights violations committed by 360 members of the armed forces and police during the military regime. According to Amnesty International, thirty-two Uruguayan citizens "disappeared," and thousands were victims of persecution and torture during that period. Groups opposed to what they called the "impunity" law-- including the MNR, the Broad Front, the Tupamaros, the UC, and the most important labor confederation--launched a campaign, spearheaded by the MNR, to force a referendum on the issue. Led by human rights activists, university professors, and artists, these groups laboriously collected the required 555,701 "recall" signatures, all of which had to be certified by the Electoral Court. The measure carried by only 230 signatures. According to the constitution, the signatures of at least 25 percent of the electorate were needed for the holding of a referendum to revoke a law passed by the General Assembly.
Those who favored keeping the full-stop law--including the ruling Colorado Party and the Ferreira-led For the Fatherland (the principal National Party faction)--argued that the amnesty had given the country four years of stability and military obedience to democratic rule. They warned that a repeal could spark an army revolt. Nevertheless, the MRB supported the call for a referendum on the full-stop law. In the obligatory April 16, 1989, referendum--in which 85 percent of the population participated--Uruguayans voted by a decisive 57 percent to 43 percent to keep the full-stop law in effect and thereby maintain a peaceful democratic transition. Although the referendum's aftermath was characterized by tranquillity and a spirit of reconciliation, it highlighted Uruguay's growing generation gap. Approximately 75 percent of Montevideo residents between eighteen and twenty-nine voted against the full-stop law.
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