New Winds in South America

Uruguay is one of the smaller countries in South America's southern cone. Like its neighbors in the region (Argentina, Paraguay, and Chile), Uruguay has suffered under a brutally repressive U.S.-backed military government for most of the past decade. But new winds are blowing in South America, including Uruguay, where a massive nonviolent movement of workers, church people, and human rights activists is bringing new hope for justice and freedom.

Ever since the 1973 military coup which broke Uruguay's long democratic tradition, Uruguayans have found creative ways of registering their opposition, despite a climate of totalitarian control and repression. The coup itself was followed by a general strike that paralyzed the country for two weeks. In the years that have followed, the Uruguayan people have consistently registered their discontent by ingeniously exploiting and expanding the very limited political space available to them.

In November, 1980, the Uruguayan military government lost its own plebiscite. Despite extensive government propaganda and severe restrictions on campaigning by the opposition, approximately 57 per cent of the Uruguayan voting population rejected the proposal to legalize the military's participation in government. That election was said to be the first time that a government's own illegitimacy was ratified by the people.

In 1982 elections were permitted for the leaders of the three "legal" parties in Uruguay. The government publicly stressed that voting was not mandatory and that the internal elections were only for the parties to elect their leaders. But the opposition within the traditional parties presented the elections as an opportunity for the Uruguayan public to register their feelings about the military government. This created a second plebiscite in which the military was again defeated by an overwhelming margin.

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