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  • Present at the Transition
  • Julio Maria Sanguinetti (bio)

Not long ago we marked the two hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution, and we are about to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the discovery of the Americas, our New World and unfinished adventure. These celebrations seem to be coinciding with the death of the postwar world and the birth of a new era.

Consider all the momentous changes that are now taking place: the progress of European unity; the surmounting of the East-West conflict and the easing of Soviet-American tensions; the waning of the East-East conflict as both China and the Soviet Union become preoccupied with internal problems and reforms and find that they no longer have the energy to be rivals. And there is also, of course, the democratization of Eastern Europe and Latin America. These are all, without a doubt, historic developments; they all combine to show us a different picture of the world. We might say that the twentieth century is now essentially completed and that these events, which undoubtedly define a new historical era, are the dawn of the twenty-first.

This is the broader context in which we must view the decade of democratic transitions that has brought such rapid and surprising changes to Latin America. In the early 1980s, three different roads carried Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay toward democracy. In Argentina the [End Page 3] debacle of the Malvinas War led directly to the breakup of the military regime; the democratic opening arrived suddenly without the ground first being prepared by a process of negotiations. In Uruguay, by contrast, there were four years of negotiations, beginning with the plebiscite proposed by the military government in 1980 and ending with national elections in 1984. In Brazil, democracy came by way of an indirect democratic election, the groundwork for which had been laid by the military government as part of its plan for a gradual transition back to civilian rule. Adroit political maneuvering permitted opposition leader Tancredo Neves to team up with parliamentary leader José Sarney to pave the way for democracy's return.

The economic paths of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay have been as disparate as their roads to democracy. Brazil enjoyed very strong, export-led growth, but its economy was unstable and finally succumbed to hyperinflation. The Argentine economy lacked Brazil's dynamism, but it too fell into hyperinflation at the same time as Brazil. In Uruguay we managed to get our economy growing again and inflation never got out of control, despite the influence that our two big neighbors, Argentina and Brazil, have on a smaller economy like ours.

The situation regarding the military in each country has been different as well. Brazil's armed forces have been fairly placid, and there were no explosive questions concerning possible legal claims against the military services or their personnel for misconduct during the period of military rule. The Uruguayan military showed proper deference to civilian authority throughout the five-year-long democratic transition (1985-1989). The military remained quiescent as civilian supremacy was reasserted in part because this reassertion took place within a climate of free debate and peaceful discussion that ultimately reached a resolution through popular elections. Argentina's military, by contrast, was very turbulent. Along with economic upheaval, Argentina suffered constant military agitation throughout this whole period. The beleaguered government of President Raúl Alfonsín had scarcely a day of peace while it struggled to preserve democratic institutions, and finally had to hand over power to Carlos Menem ahead of schedule.

The most recent transitions—those in Chile, Nicaragua, and Paraguay in 1989 and 1990—differ both from the earlier transitions and from one another. Chile's free elections were the result of a more or less negotiated evolution within the regime. Nicaragua also had a relatively free election after negotiations; the result there was, paradoxically, both analogous in form to that in Chile, and at the opposite ideological remove from it. In both countries the forces of the old and new regimes presently coexist, and civilian presidents must govern with military commanders-in-chief who are representatives of the old regime and its still very active and numerous...


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