The Constitution

Uruguay Table of Contents

Since achieving independence in 1828, Uruguay has promulgated five constitutions: in 1830, 1917, 1934, 1952, and 1967. When it became independent on August 27, 1828, the Oriental Republic of Uruguay (República Oriental del Uruguay) drew up its first constitution, which was promulgated on July 18, 1830.

The 1830 constitution has been regarded as Uruguay's most technically perfect charter. Heavily influenced by the thinking of the French and American revolutions, it divided the government among the executive, legislative, and judicial powers and established Uruguay as a unitary republic with a centralized form of government. The bicameral General Assembly (Asamblea General) was empowered to elect a president with considerable powers to head the executive branch for a four-year term. The president was given control over all of his ministers of government and was empowered to make decisions with the agreement of at least one of the three ministers recognized by the 1830 constitution.

Like all of Uruguay's charters since then, the 1830 constitution provided for a General Assembly composed of a Chamber of Senators (Cámara de Senadores), or Senate (Senado), elected nationally, and a Chamber of Representatives (Cámara de Representantes), elected from the departments. Members of the General Assembly were empowered to pass laws but lacked the authority to dismiss the president or his ministers or to issue votes of no confidence. An 1834 amendment, however, provided for juicio político, or impeachment, of the ministers for "unacceptable conduct."

As established by the 1830 constitution, the Supreme Court of Justice (Corte Suprema de Justicia), and lesser courts, exercised the judicial power. The General Assembly appointed the members of the high court. The latter--with the consent of the Senate in the case of the appellate courts--appointed the members of the lesser courts. The constitution also divided the country into departments, each headed by a governor appointed by the president and each having an advisory body called a Neighbors' Council (Consejo de Vecinos).

Although the 1830 constitution remained in effect for eighty- seven years, de facto governments violated it repeatedly. In the 1878-90 period, the Blancos and Colorados initiated the framework for a more stable system through understandings called "pacts between the parties." This governing principle, called coparticipation (coparticipación), meaning the sharing of formal political and informal bureaucratic power, has been formally practiced since 1872.

In 1913 President José Batlle y Ordóñez (1903-07, 1911-15), the father of modern Uruguay, proposed a constitutional reform involving the creation of a Swiss-style collegial executive system to be called the colegiado. A strong opponent of the one-person, powerful presidency, Batlle y Ordóñez believed that a collective executive power would neutralize the dictatorial intentions of political leaders. It met intense opposition, however, not only from the Blancos but also from members of his own Colorado Party. The proposal was defeated in 1916, but Batlle y Ordóñez worked out a deal with a faction of the Blancos whereby a compromise system was provided for in the second constitution, which was approved by plebiscite on November 25, 1917.

In addition to separating church and state, the new charter, which did not become effective until 1919, introduced substantial changes in the powers of the presidency. The executive power consisted of the president, who controlled foreign relations, national security, and agriculture, and the National Council of Administration (Consejo Nacional de Administración), or colegiado, which administered all other executive governmental functions (industrial relations, health, public works, industry and labor, livestock and agriculture, education, and the preparation of the budget). The colegiado, embodying the political mechanism of coparticipation, consisted of nine members: six from the majority party and three from the minority party. The first colegiado (1919-33) was thereby established without eliminating the office of president.

The history of successive constitutions is one of a lengthy struggle between advocates of the collegial system and those of the presidential system. Although the 1917 constitution worked well during the prosperous time after World War I, recurring conflicts between the president and the colegiado members made the executive power ineffective in coping with the economic and social crises wracking the country. These conflicts eventually led to the presidential coup of 1933. The ad hoc government suspended the constitution and appointed a constituent assembly to draw up a new one.

The 1934 constitution abolished the colegiado and transferred its power to the president. Nevertheless, presidential powers remained somewhat limited. The executive power once again was exercised by a president who had to make decisions together with the ministers. The 1934 charter established the Council of Ministers (Consejo de Ministros) as the body in which these decisions were to be made. This council consisted of the president and the cabinet ministers. The constitution required the chief executive to appoint three of the nine cabinet ministers from among the members of the political party that received the second largest number of votes in the presidential election. The General Assembly, for its part, could issue votes of no confidence in cabinet ministers, with the approval of two-thirds of its members.

The constitution divided the Senate between the Blancos and the Colorados or, as political scientist Martin Weinstein has pointed out, between the Herrerist faction of the Blancos (named after Luis Alberto de Herrera) and the Terrist wing of the Colorados (named after Gabriel Terra; president, 1931-38). The party that garnered the second largest number of votes automatically received 50 percent of the Senate seats. In addition, the 1934 charter empowered the Supreme Court of Justice to rule on the constitutionality of the laws. This system, which lasted eighteen years, further limited the power of the president and his government.

Although Uruguay returned to a more democratic system in 1942, the failure of political sectors to reach an agreement on the proposed constitution drafted that year resulted in the postponement of constitutional reform. On July 31, 1951, a formal pact between the rightist Batllist faction of the Colorados--the Colorado and Batllist Union (Unión Colorada y Batllista--UCB)-- and the Herrerist Movement (Movimiento Herrerista) of the Blancos called for a plebiscite on constitutional reform. The plebiscite the following December 16 drew less than half of the 1.1 million voters to the polls, but the collegial system was approved by a small margin.

As the culmination of an effort to reestablish the colegiado and the plural executive power, a fourth constitution was promulgated on January 25, 1952. It readopted Batlle y Ordóñez's original proposal for coparticipation by creating a nine-member colegiado, this time called the National Council of Government (Consejo Nacional de Gobierno), with six majority-party seats and three minority-party seats. The presidency of the council rotated among the six members of the majority party. The chief executive could nominate only four of the nine ministers from his own party faction; the General Assembly selected the other five through separate votes in both chambers. An absolute majority (more than two-thirds), however, of the full membership of the two legislative chambers had to support the appointments. It thereby ensured that either the Colorados or the Blancos would get the minority seats on the colegiado. The 1952 constitution also provided for impeachment of the president by the General Assembly.

This nine-member colegiado, which headed the executive branch from 1954 to 1967, was ineffective because the president lacked control over the ministers and because the majority was seldom united. During most of this period, the National Party held power, having been elected in 1958 for the first time in over ninety years and again in 1962 when a different faction of the party was elected. The ineffectiveness of these governments caused the public to turn against the colegiado arrangement.

In the elections of November 27, 1966, nearly 59 percent of Uruguayans voted to amend the 1952 constitution and to reestablish a presidential system of government, thus ending a fifteen-year experiment with the colegiado. The new constitution, which became operative on February 15, 1967, and has remained in effect since then, created a strong one-person presidency, subject to legislative and judicial checks. In free and fair elections held in 1968, Uruguayans approved the new charter and elected the Colorado Party to power again.

The 1967 constitution contained many of the provisions of the 1952 charter. However, it removed some of the General Assembly's power to initiate legislation and provided for automatic approval of bills under certain conditions if the legislature failed to act. If, on receiving a bill, the president had objections or comments to make, the bill had to be returned to the General Assembly within ten days. If sixty days elapsed without a decision by the General Assembly, the president's objections had to be considered as accepted. The 1967 document also established the Permanent Commission, composed of four senators and seven representatives, which exercised certain legislative functions while the General Assembly was in recess.

The 1967 charter could be amended by any of four different methods. First, 10 percent of the citizens who were registered to vote could initiate an amendment if they presented a detailed proposal to the president of the General Assembly. Second, two- fifths of the full membership of the General Assembly could approve a proposal presented to the president of the General Assembly and submitted to a plebiscite at the next election (a yes vote of an absolute majority of the full membership of the General Assembly was required, and this majority had to represent at least 35 percent of all registered voters). Third, senators, representatives, and the president of the republic could present proposed amendments, which had to be approved by an absolute majority of the full membership of the General Assembly. And finally, amendments could be made by constitutional laws requiring the approval of two-thirds of the full membership of each chamber of the General Assembly in the same legislative period.

In 1976, however, the military government issued a series of constitutional decrees that amended the 1967 constitution by creating the Council of the Nation (Consejo de la Nación) to serve as the supreme governmental body, with executive and legislative functions. It consisted of the thirty members of the Council of State (Consejo de Estado, the body created by the regime in June 1973 to act in lieu of the General Assembly, which was dissolved by the regime and the twenty-eight senior officers of the armed forces (sixteen from the army, six from the navy, and six from the air force). The Council of the Nation appointed the president of the republic and the members of the Council of State, the Supreme Court of Justice, and the Tribunal of Administrative Claims, which was later dissolved in 1985. Eight institutional acts substituted for many of the functional provisions and guarantees of the 1967 constitution. For example, in addition to giving the Council of the Nation the power to appoint the president of the republic and to set general policy for the country, institutional acts deprived previous officeholders and candidates of their political rights and permitted the arbitrary dismissal of public employees.

Under the 1976 constitutional amendments, the president exercised executive power, acting with the concurrence of one or more ministers as appropriate or with the National Security Council (Consejo de Seguridad Nacional--Cosena). The Cosena was formed in 1973 and consisted of the commanders of the army, navy, and air force, plus an additional senior military officer, and the ministers of national defense, interior, and foreign affairs. It participated in any decision related to the "national security" or in any formulation of overall plans or objectives.

The constitutional decrees declared generally that the maintenance of the national security was of "exclusive competence," i.e., the sole prerogative, of the armed forces. These decrees deprived local governments of all budgetary powers. The Council of State continued to pass laws that the executive normally would have submitted for approval. Only the executive could initiate the procedure for approval of legislation on budgetary or other matters that could be related in any way to national security. The decrees also created the Ministry of Justice, responsible for relations between the executive and judicial powers.

In 1980 the military regime drew up a charter that would have provided for a strong, continuing role for the military along the lines of the 1976 constitutional decrees, including legitimizing the Cosena's new role. The document also would have greatly reduced the roles of the General Assembly and political parties. In a plebiscite held November 30, 1980, however, Uruguayans, by a margin of 57 percent to 43 percent of the popular vote, rejected the new military-drafted constitution. Nevertheless, a new thirty-five-member Council of State was installed on August 20, 1981, before President Gregorio Alvarez Armelino (1981-85) took office. Its powers were expanded to include responsibility for calling a constitutional assembly, a plebiscite, and general elections.

In discussions held during 1983, the military commanders and the leaders of the Colorado and National parties prepared a new text of the 1967 constitution. Accords negotiated by the military, the Colorados (but not the Blancos), and most of the Broad Front in July and August 1984 provided for a return to democracy without the Cosena.

Following the return to civilian rule in 1985, Uruguay's human rights record quickly improved. One of the Sanguinetti government's first acts in this area was--with the approval of the newly restored General Assembly--to grant amnesty to all political prisoners, who consisted chiefly of members of the National Liberation Movement-Tupamaros (Movimiento de Liberación Nacional-Tupamaros--MLN-T). In the late 1980s, there were no credible reports of human rights violations, according to the United States Department of State.

Since 1985 Uruguay's democratic governments have respected the sixty-five articles in the 1967 constitution concerned primarily with the rights of citizens. The document provided for freedom of religion, thought, speech and press, peaceful assembly and association, collective bargaining, movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration and repatriation, respect for political rights, and the inviolability of property and privacy. The constitution did not provide for a state religion, although Roman Catholicism predominated, or for capital punishment (that was abolished during Batlle y Ordóñez's second term). There were two forms of citizenship: natural (persons born in Uruguay or those who were of Uruguayan parents and were registered residents) and legal (individuals established in Uruguay with at least three years' residence in the case of those with family in Uruguay or five years' residence for those without family there). Primary and secondary education was both free and compulsory. Every citizen eighteen years of age or older had the right and obligation to vote, which was compulsory.

Uruguay has long been one of the most egalitarian countries in the world. Women's suffrage was enacted in 1932. In 1946 a statute was passed repealing all laws that established legal differences in the rights of women. Uruguayan women, who constituted one-third of the work force in the 1980s, enjoyed complete equality under the law. Nevertheless, some barriers still existed in practice because of traditional social patterns and restricted employment opportunities. Women often received less pay than men, especially in less skilled jobs. By early 1990, very few women held high political positions, but women had served in the cabinet, the Supreme Court of Justice, and the diplomatic corps, including at the ambassadorial level, and a few had served as alternates in the General Assembly.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress