Uruguay 1973-1985

On June 27th, 1973 the Uruguayan military overthrew the elected government. The occasion was a last act of resistance of the parliamentarians – they refused to waive immunity of a member of parliament. As a consequence, the National Security Council ordered parliament to be surrounded, dissolved both chambers and officially took over the government. The populace reacted with a general strike which they managed to maintain for two weeks.

© Albrecht Girle

Missing Persons


Carlos Alfredo Rodríguez Mercader 1950-1976

Amalia Mercader never gave up the search for her son Carlos and took part until the end in every demonstration with a photo of her missing son. In December 2016, the teacher and school principal died. There is still no trace of Carlos Rodríguez Mercader. In Uruguay, he worked as a mechanics teacher at the Industrial School in Santa Lucía and had already been politically active as a student. After the arrest of his wife, he fled to Buenos Aires. There he was abducted on October 1st 1976 and is considered to be a victim of the so-called “Operation Condor”. His mother, a member of the Socialist Party of Uruguay, was removed from her post as teacher under the dictatorship 1974 and reinstated only in 1986.

465 Persons were Murdered During the Dictatorship

www.laprensa.com.uy | Zelmar Micheliny y Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz

Killed by the dictatorship


Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz and Zelmar Michelini

In the early morning of May 18th 1976 an armed commando burst into the hotel room of Zelmar Michelini in Buenos Aires. Since 1973 the Uruguayan senator lived in exile in Argentina. At the same time, the former president of the Uruguayan parliament Héctor Ruiz Gutiérrez, also exiled in Argentina, was also abducted. The mission in Argentina was carried out by military personnel including Uruguayan military personnel. It was part of the so-called “Operation Condor”. On May 21st 1976 both politicians were found shot in a car in Buenos Aires.

The Stolen Children of the Dictatorship


Stolen Children


One of the most spectacular cases in recent years was the “case Gelman”. During the dictatorship, the Argentinian writer Juan Gelman lost his son and his daughter-in-law, Maria Claudia García, who was abducted to a Uruguayan prison where her daughter Macarena was born. Until today there is no trace of Maria Claudia García. Her daughter was adopted by a member of the armed forces. Only the search by her grandparents informed Macarena about the true identity of her parents. She now lives in Montevideo, is actively engaged in human rights issues and sits in the Uruguayan parliament for Frente Amplio.

380.000 Persons – About 14% of the Population – Went into Exile




For many persons, exile was the only possibility to prevent an impending arrest or re-arrest. Also Hugo Licandro, member of the Frente Amplio, decided after his second arrest to flee the country. A niece of his wife lived in Venezuela. After two years, his wife Isobel Rubbo followed with their son Pablo. In Venezuela Hugo Licandro worked as a history lecturer, his wife as a literature lecturer. In 1980 Hugo Licandro was offered a chair at the University of Managua, whereupon the family left for Nicaragua. Already in December 1984 Pablo returned to Uruguay, his parents followed in March 1985.

More than 40.000 Persons were arrested for political motives


Political prisoners


Uberfil Martínez Falero was imprisoned from 1974 until 1979. At the time of his arrest, he was only 21 years old, worked at the tire factory FUNSA and was an active member of the Communist Party of Uruguay. In later years he was actively engaged to the work of Crysol. He died in 2016 at the age of 63.

The Dictatorship in Uruguay


At the moment of the military coup, the MLN-Tupamaro movement (Movimiento de Liberación Nacional Tupamaros), the so-called urban guerilla, was already sidelined, as well as the trade union movement, pupils and students and other groups of civic resistance.

The beginning of the economic crisis came at the time after the end of the Korean War and the deterioration of the prices for agricultural products on the world market. Uruguay, which relied on the export of their agricultural products (meat, leather, wool) for 80% of the state revenue and had established a welfare state in the first half of the 20th century, experienced a profound economic crisis with the national debt constantly growing and inflation rising. Political reactions were rather helpless; there were no reforms and land ownership structure wasn’t touched.

Read on …

World political developments intensified the precarious political situation at home. The United States were shocked by the successful Cuban revolution and saw it as the spreading of communism in Latin America, which led to the support of several reactionary regimes in Latin America by the US government.

The strike of the sugar cane workers in Artigas is regarded as the start of the social protests. Rural workers and their families lived under very bad conditions. Additionally they were cheated on and deprived of their wages. Raúl Sendic, a member of the Socialist Party of Uruguay supported the strikers. 1962, in their need, they walked on foot from Artigas to Montevideo to achieve the dispossession of an uncultivated agricultural estate by parliament. Their aim was to farm the land as a cooperative. They weren’t successful but put social justice for rural workers on the agenda of problems the country should solve.

The spirit of optimism sparked by the Cuban revolution and the Algerian war of independence inspired parts of the left and led, among other things, to the founding of the MLN Tupamaros. They managed to win over important parts of the population with their actions which were very creative, especially at the beginning.

The political situation was tense. One week after taking office in December 1967 Jorge Pacheco, who, after the death of the elected president Óscar Gestido, succeeded him as president, ordered by decree the dissolution of various leftist groups and restricted freedom of the press. Protests by students and pupils against fare increases were the occasion for emergency legislation. Already on June 6th 1968 police opened fire on demonstrators. Five of them were severely injured. On August 9th of the same year the autonomy of the university was violated. During ongoing student protests on August 12th the police again resorted to violence, badly wounding Libre Acre, a participant in the demonstration. He died two days later as consequence of his severe injuries. Two other students, Susana Pintos and Hugo de los Santos, died on September 20th 1968 also during a student demonstration. The ambulance was prevented from reaching the injured. In the old barracks where the reservist training center was established (Centro General de Instrucción de Oficiales de Reserva CGIOR), people were tortured as early as 1968! The government of President Jorge Pacheco went down in history as the “Pachecato”.

Union members, members of leftwing political parties and student organizations were persecuted and arrested. In this climate, the actions of the Tupamaros changed as well and the state reacted with might and main. In 1972, the Tupamaros were defeated. Members were either imprisoned, dead or in exile. Some Tupamaros, like the later Uruguayan president José Mujica, were kept imprisoned under inhumane conditions as state hostages. And then – on June 27th 1973 the military coup took place. 15 days of general strike. Arrests and exile ensued.

On November 30th 1980, the military government held a referendum to get the approval of the Uruguayan population for a constitutional amendment, thus legitimizing the dictatorship. But 57% of the population entitled to vote voted No. This was the beginning of the end of the dictatorship. Negotiations about the transition to a democratic Uruguay lasted several years. The pact of the naval club (Pacto del Club Naval) from August 1984 paved the way for constitutional elections in November 1984. The assumption of office by Julio Sanguinetti on March 1st 1985 sealed the end of the dictatorship.

The transition to a democracy was successful, though the price was the impediment of criminal prosecution. Yielding to the pressure of the armed forces, the law of impunity (Ley de Caducidad de la Pretensión Punitiva del Estado) was passed on December 22nd 1986, which prevents persecution of crimes committed by military personnel and other state officials during the dictatorship. Since then Uruguay has an ongoing debate about dealing with the past. Positions range from drawing a line to coming to terms with the past. As there are a minimum of 192 persons missing without a trace, dealing with past crimes of the dictatorship is still a socio-political topic in Uruguay.