We remember the 27th day of June of 1973 as the starting date of the dictatorship. The institutional breakdown, however, did not occur overnight; it was the conclusion of a relatively long process of erosion of a very peculiar model of liberal democracy in a country that was and remains rather atypical in the Latin American context.
When the dictatorship began, I was in my second year of primary education at Escuela 11, a public school in a working-class neighbourhood of my city, Paysandú. I have no concrete memory of the day of the coup, but my teacher was probably giving us a lesson on Uruguayan geography: “una penillanura suavemente ondulada (a gently rolling peneplain) without the mountains, jungles or deserts that characterise other countries in the region”, as one textbook of the time put it.
But geography is not the only element that would define Uruguay’s supposed exceptionalism. Unlike most political systems in the Latin American region, characterised by weak parties with a short history, Uruguay’s two major traditional parties (which hegemonised national politics until the late 1980s) are among the oldest in the world. The Partido Colorado and the Partido Nacional were founded in the 1830s in the context of Uruguay’s birth as an independent state.
The strong party system that has historically characterised the Uruguayan political architecture also includes a left with a long history and a vocation for unity that has earned the admiration of progressive activists in other countries in the region and the world. While in other places left parties and movements are pitted against each other, in Uruguay practically all left currents – communists, socialists, anarchists, social democrats, progressive Christians and former guerrillas – came together in the creation of the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) coalition in 1971. Despite being brutally repressed during the dictatorship, the Uruguayan left re-emerged united and ascended to national office between 2005 and 2020. It is very likely (and desirable, given my militant identity) that the Broad Front will recapture the national government in next year’s election, while it runs the governments of the departments of Montevideo, Canelones and Salto, where more than 60% of the country’s population resides.
The founding of the Broad Front in 1971 resulted from earlier attempts towards unification and the synthesis of non-sectarian approaches centred on identifying two common enemies: imperialism and the local oligarchy. The construction of the Broad Front in the years immediately before the dictatorship was based on the articulation of a common political programme, grassroots organisation and a shared electoral platform. To a large extent, the unification of the political left was nourished by the experience of trade union convergence structured around a single national confederation that had managed to reposition partial and immediate demands within a coherent, far-sighted and viable programme of viable solutions for the problems of the country as a whole.
Another crucial element that has contributed to defining Uruguay’s supposed exceptionalism is the long-standing and widespread presence of a benevolent state that, during many decades, guaranteed civic, social and economic rights, resulting in an interpretation of the public as synonymous with the state and the primacy of the public realm over private affairs. The democratic-pluralist, state-driven and party-centric matrix of the Uruguayan society has also been characterised – since the beginning of the last century – by the preference for gradual and reformist paths to social and political transformation, the primacy of an urban political culture (with more than 90% of the population residing since the first half of the past century in the capital, Montevideo, and other cities). Historians also mention the creation of a peculiar welfare state at the beginning of the 20th century with the implementation of advanced labour legislation and social reforms without precedents in the Latin American region.
The Uruguayan model of state-centred development emerged in the early 20th century, during the presidential administrations of José Batlle y Ordoñéz, a political figure that today we would characterise as ‘social democratic’. In the turbulent times of the first two decades of the past century and facing growing social and political unrest, the Uruguayan state passed several legislative reforms that were very advanced for that period, including unemployment insurance, paid maternity leave, divorce at the request of the wife, and the eight-hour working day. In the following decades, the working class also conquered a system of collective bargaining that allowed negotiations between unions, employers and the state to agree on wages and working conditions. Many years later, in the context of the pandemic, a British journalist argued that Uruguay’s relative success against Covid-19 could be explained on the basis of “the good reasons citizens have for trusting the public sector”, given the existence of an “expansive welfare state that provides almost universal access to pensions, childcare, health care and education”.
Despite the particularities and historical strength of the Uruguayan democracy, the country is part of a region that was shaken by profound political and social transformations in the two decades prior to the coup. The Cuban revolution of 1959 marked the moment when Uruguay, like the rest of Latin America, internalised the logic of global confrontation that characterised the so-called Cold War. In the specific case of Uruguay, the late 1950s also marked a very significant change in the country’s history. After several decades of governments run by the Colorado Party, the democratic alternation resulting from the victory of the National Party in the election of 1958 changed the government’s orientation, with a clear shift to the right in public policy. The outcome of the 1958 election also altered the internal dynamics of the armed forces. The National Party had sought for decades to gain support among senior military officers, particularly army generals. The outcome of that national election increased the influence of officers ideologically positioned much further to the right than the generals close to the Colorado Party had been and who – until then – had controlled most of the army’s command posts.
1964 was another significant year in the timeline leading to the coup nine years later. On 1 April 1964, the military overthrew Brazil’s democratic government led by President João Goulart, installing a dictatorship that lasted for over two decades in Latin America’s largest and most populous country. The coup in the powerful northern neighbour caused much concern in Uruguay, with new worries about the prospect of similar events at home.
At the time of the coup in Brazil, the US government feared a communist takeover. The White House and its embassy in Brazil were concerned as the biggest country in South America veered to the left during the Goulart administration. Although those in charge in Washington DC denied having any part in the Brazilian coup, plenty of evidence shows their support for the putschists. Then US President Lyndon B. Johnson immediately recognised the military regime as legitimate, as US governments continued to do following the coups that took place across the region in the 1970s and 1980s. A widespread joke in Uruguay and other Latin American countries is that there will never be a military coup in the United States because that country does not have a US embassy.
The next key year in the timeline towards the coup was 1968. By then, the Uruguayan political system – which in previous decades had achieved regional and global recognition as a solid democracy – increasingly began to resemble more and more what the acclaimed Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano characterised as a democradura, referring to a particular type of government that maintains the formal structure of a liberal democracy but with strong authoritarian and repressive features, short of becoming a full dictatorship. A characteristic of the five years immediately preceding the 1973 coup was the abusive use of legal norms to repress social and political protest through the frequent use of the mechanism of medidas prontas de seguridad (prompt security measures), a temporary limitation of individual freedoms and guarantees provided for in the Constitution for very exceptional situations.
In February 1973, a military rebellion took place, which included the proclamation of a series of demands aimed at changing the orientation of government policies. The insubordination weakened the authority of the increasingly authoritarian President Juan María Bordaberry. From that moment on, with the formation of the National Security Council (COSENA), military co-participation was instituted in decision-making in matters that transcended the historical competencies of the armed forces.
The shift to the right that took place in the Uruguayan government after 1959, which included a series of structural adjustment programmes, had been enthusiastically supported by the sectors of the bourgeoisie in control of the national economy. The rise to the presidency of Jorge Pacheco Areco in December 1967 was applauded by business circles that demanded an authoritarian reaction to deal with the wave of growing trade union mobilisation and social protest.
In 1973, the regional context in the region was very favourable for the coup plotters. Paraguay had been an authoritarian regime since 1947, and Alfredo Stroessner had ruled as dictator since 1954. On the other side of the Rio de la Plata, in Argentina, the military had already overthrown the democratic government in 1966. Brazil and Bolivia had military governments from 1964 and Peru since 1968 (although the latter represented a somewhat different political orientation from the other dictatorships). In Chile, the socialist Popular Unity government faced the combined pressure of the national oligarchy and transnational capital. In most of Latin America, the health of democracy was fragile, with frequent outbreaks of political violence and curtailment of freedoms against a general backdrop of direct or indirect US intervention. The US government, after the incorporation of Cuba into the socialist camp, was determined to prevent the enemy’s advance in its ‘backyard’ and intensified the training of Latin American militaries in ‘counterinsurgency’ to establish a continental mechanism for surveillance, repression of dissent and support to authoritarian regimes aligned with its political and economic interests.
In the supposedly more democratic and stable Uruguay, the political, social and economic landscape had long since ceased to be idyllic or different from that of neighbouring countries. Since the mid-20th century, the economic crisis had been tackled by successive governments with market-driven policies that had a severe impact on vast sectors of the working class. Growing social protests by workers and students were ignored or brutally repressed. The urban guerrillas – mainly the Tupamaros National Liberation Movement (MLN-T) – which had amassed relatively broad social support in the late 1960s and early 1970s, were already militarily defeated. However, the coup plotters still pointed at the guerrillas as an excuse for democratic breakdown. The hope for social change that had arisen with the creation of the left-wing coalition Frente Amplio in 1971 was extinguished with the electoral triumph of the right in the same year. The two major traditional parties had lost credibility, weakening the historical foundations of the republican democratic system that had characterised Uruguay for decades.