Uruguay, Plebiscites

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Uruguay, Plebiscites

There have been four plebiscites (1951, 1966, 1980, 1989) in Uruguay since World War II. The plebiscite of 25 November 1951—the last Sunday in November, which is the traditional date for elections in Uruguay—approved the Constitution of 1952. This Constitution abolished the presidential system and gave Uruguay a collegial executive, known as the Colegiado, consisting of nine members. The 27 November 1966 plebiscite marked the abandonment of Uruguay's experiment with the colegiado by approving the 1966 Constitution, which returned Uruguay to a presidential system.

The 30 November 1980 plebiscite was an attempt by Uruguay's military government to "constitutionalize" the armed forces' control of the government. Its proposed constitution called for the creation of a National Security Council (COSENA) that would be dominated by the military and exercise a virtual veto power over executive-branch decisions. An interim president would serve for five years. In addition, the constitutional project called for an automatic majority for the winning party in the legislative.

The traditional parties (Blancos and Colorados) were given little or no opportunity to campaign for a "no" vote, and the Left remained banned. The official and progovernment media campaigned for a "yes" vote, arguing that this was the only way to get the military back to the barracks. The military expected to win, just as Augusto Pinochet had in Chile only a few months earlier, but the proposed constitution was defeated by a 58 to 42 percent vote. This vote was a strategic defeat for the dictatorship. It let average citizens know that they were not alone in the opposition to the seven-year-old dictatorship. The military's defeat in the 1980 plebiscite began a process that led to the November 1984 elections and the restoration of constitutional democracy.

The 16 April 1989 plebiscite was held to determine whether a law granting amnesty to the military would be repealed. The so-called Law on the Expiration of the Punitive Power of the State had been passed in December 1986 to avoid a crisis with the military, which stated that it would not honor subpoenas to testify in civilian trials concerning human-rights abuses during its nearly twelve years in power. Under Uruguay's constitution, any law can be overturned by plebiscite if 25 percent of all eligible voters sign a petition to hold such a referendum. Most observers doubted that the anti-amnesty forces could collect the nearly 550,000 signatures that would be necessary, especially with pleas from the government against the idea and veiled threats from the armed forces. Nevertheless, 635,000 signatures were presented to the Electoral Court, which then took more than a year to verify the signatures, a task that required the last-minute in-person verification of some 20,000 Uruguayans.

During the referendum campaign the Julio María Sanguinetti government and most politicians in the Blanco and Colorado parties supported a vote to uphold the amnesty law. Most of the Left, the labor unions, church and human-rights groups, and a few centrist politicians supported the repeal of the law. In an outstanding example of democracy in action, the Uruguayan people voted on 16 April 1989. The amnesty law was upheld by 57 to 43 percent. The vote to overturn the amnesty carried in Montevideo, where almost half the population lives, but was quite poor in the much more conservative interior of the country. The vote was seen as a victory for the Sanguinetti administration, but the Colorado Party lost some goodwill in the process, which contributed to its defeat in the November elections.

See alsoUruguay, Constitutions .


Luis E. González, "Uruguay, 1980–1981: An Unexpected Opening," in Latin American Research Review 18, no. 3 (1983): 63-76.

Martin Weinstein, "Consolidating Democracy in Uruguay: The Sea Change of the 1989 Elections" (Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Working Paper Series, 1990).

Lawrence Wechsler, A Miracle, a Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers (1990).

Additional Bibliography

Brito, Alexandra Barahona de. Human Rights and Democratization in Latin America: Uruguay and Chile. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Nahum, Benjamín. El Uruguay del siglo XX. Montevideo, Uruguay: Ediciones de la Banda Oriental, 2001.

                                       Martin Weinstein