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Freedom in the World 2011 - Uruguay

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 12 May 2011
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2011 - Uruguay, 12 May 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4dcbf50e8.html [accessed 20 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Capital: Montevideo
Population: 3,364,000

Political Rights Score: 1 *
Civil Liberties Score: 1 *
Status: Free

Overview

President José Mujica of the center-left Broad Front coalition developed a conciliatory tone toward the opposition during his first year in office, fostering support among the main opposition parties. However, leftist elements from within his coalition complicated the reform agenda. Separately, former president Juan María Bordaberry received a 30-year prison sentence in February for the 1976 kidnapping and murder of two parliamentary leaders during Uruguay's dirty war.


After gaining independence from Spain, the Republic of Uruguay was established in 1830. The ensuing decades brought a series of revolts, civil conflicts, and incursions by neighboring states, followed by a period of relative stability in the first half of the 20th century. The rival Colorado and Blanco parties vied for political power in the 1950s and 1960s, but economic troubles and an insurgency by the leftist Tupamaros National Liberation Front led to a military takeover in 1973. For the next 22 years, the country remained under the control of a military regime whose reputation for incarcerating the largest proportion of political prisoners per capita in the world earned Uruguay the nickname "the torture chamber of Latin America."

The military era came to an end after the 1984 elections, in which Julio María Sanguinetti of the Colorado Party won the presidency. Sanguinetti, the military's favored candidate, promoted a 1986 amnesty law which granted members of the armed forces immunity for human rights violations committed during the years of dictatorship. The military extracted the concession as its price for allowing the democratic transition the year before.

In the 1989 general election, Luis Lacalle of the Blanco Party was elected president. The 1990s were marked by relative economic stability and prosperity. Dr. Jorge Batlle of the Colorado party was elected president in 1999. He immediately sought an honest accounting of the human rights situation under the former military regime, while showing equally firm determination to reduce spending and privatize state monopolies. In 2001, crises in the rural economy and an increase in violent crime, as well as growing labor unrest, set off alarms in what was still one of Latin America's safest countries.

A currency devaluation and default in Argentina at the end of 2001 caused a dramatic drop in foreign exchange reserves and unprecedented economic insecurity. By mid-2002, the government was forced to impose a weeklong bank holiday, Uruguay's first in 70 years, to stanch a run on the country's banks.

In October 2004, Tabaré Vázquez of the Broad Front (FA) coalition was elected president in the first round of voting, dealing a crushing blow to the Colorado Party. Vázquez's coalition also captured a majority of seats in both houses of parliament, marking the first time in nearly 40 years that the president's party enjoyed a parliamentary majority. Faced with the challenge of creating a stable macroeconomic framework and attracting foreign capital, Vázquez began his term by implementing a floating exchange rate, fiscal discipline, and an inflation-targeted monetary policy in a growing economy.

Uruguay fully repaid its International Monetary Fund (IMF) obligations in November 2006. Nevertheless, the Vázquez administration continued its commitment to economic orthodoxy, including the introduction of a personal income tax and a simplified the tax system in 2007. Aided by increased commodity prices, President Vázquez tripled foreign investment, maintained steady inflation, reduced poverty from 37 to 26 percent of the population, and cut unemployment in half.

Vázquez was willing to reopen the issue of the disappearance of some 200 Uruguayans during the military's political dominance in the 1970s, known as Uruguay's dirty war. Under its reinterpretation of the 1986 amnesty law, which allowed for higher-level officers to be tried, the administration arrested several police chiefs and army leaders in 2006 and 2007 for human rights violations committed during the dirty war. Former military dictator Gregorio Álvarez was convicted in October 2009 of abducting political opponents during the period of military rule and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Also in October, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the amnesty law as it applied to the case of a young activist who was tortured and killed in the 1970s; just days later, a public referendum on overturning the amnesty law failed. In February 2010, former president Juan María Bordaberry received a 30-year prison sentence for the 1976 kidnapping and murder of two parliamentary leaders.

In October 2009 parliamentary elections, the FA coalition won slim majorities in both houses, securing 16 of 30 seats in the Senate and 50 of 99 seats in the Chamber of Representatives. Aided by the ongoing popularity of President Vázquez, José Mujica of the FA coalition was elected president in November 2009, capturing 53 percent in a run-off vote. Mujica, a socialist senator who spent 14 years in prison for waging a guerilla movement against the military regime, focused his first year on national reconciliation and maintaining moderate policies. The left wing of Mujica's diverse FA coalition stepped up criticism of his agenda after the election, specifically public sector reform and elements of the five-year budget law. In contrast to his predecessor, Mujica supports the amnesty law. In October 2010, the Chamber of Representatives adopted a bill that would nullify the amnesty law by establishing a constitutional right to investigate crimes against humanity, though the Senate did not pass the bill by year's end.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Uruguay is an electoral democracy. The 2009 elections were free and fair. The 1967 constitution established a bicameral General Assembly consisting of the 99-member Chamber of Representatives and the 30-member Senate, with all members serving five-year terms. The president is directly elected for a single five-year term.

The major political parties and groupings are the Colorado Party, the Independent Party, the Blanco Party, and the ruling FA coalition. The latter includes the Movement of Popular Participation (MPP), the New Space Party, the Socialist Party, and the Uruguayan Assembly, among other factions.

The Transparency Law criminalizes a broad range of potential abuses of power by officeholders, including the laundering of funds related to public corruption cases. Uruguay was ranked 24 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index, making it one of the least corrupt countries in Latin America.

Constitutional guarantees regarding free expression are respected, and violations of press freedom are rare. The press is privately owned, and broadcasting includes both commercial and public outlets. Numerous daily newspapers publish, many of which are associated with political parties; there are also a number of weeklies. A June 2009 bill eliminated criminal penalties for the defamation of public officials. The government does not place restrictions on internet usage.

Freedom of religion is a cherished political tenet of democratic Uruguay and is broadly respected. The government does not restrict academic freedom.

Rights to freedom of assembly and association are provided for by law, and the government generally observes these in practice. Civic organizations have proliferated since the return of civilian rule. Numerous women's rights groups focus on problems such as violence against women and societal discrimination. Workers exercise their right to join unions, bargain collectively, and hold strikes. Unions are well-organized and politically powerful.

The national umbrella trade union, the PIT-CNT, held a nation-wide general strike in October 2010, demanding wage increases and protesting against proposed reforms to the bloated and inefficient public administration. The guiding principles for these reforms had been announced in August and included ending the immobility of public servants, reforming the civil service, and establishing a new pay system. The decision to hold the first general strike under José Mujica's government was divisive within the union movement and reflected an increase in opposition from the radical left within the president's alliance.

Uruguay's judiciary is relatively independent, but the court system remains severely backlogged. Pretrial detainees often spend more time in jail than they would if convicted of the offense in question and sentenced to the maximum prison term. Overcrowded prisons, poor conditions, and violence among inmates remained problems in 2010. In July, 12 inmates died in a prison fire in southeastern Uruguay. Medical care for prisoners is substandard, and many rely on visitors for food.

The small black minority, comprising an estimated 4 percent of the population, continues to face economic difficulties. Official estimates state that 50 percent of Afro-Uruguayans are poor and suffer from discrimination.

Women enjoy equal rights under the law but face traditional discriminatory attitudes and practices, including salaries averaging approximately two-thirds those of men. Violence against women remained a problem in 2010. Women hold only 14 percent of parliamentary seats, below the Latin American average of 23 percent. However, under a 2009 quota law, women must comprise one-third of a party's political candidate list beginning in 2014. Congress approved gay civil unions in 2007, making Uruguay the first South American country to approve these rights nationwide.


* Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

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