Uruguay’s Elections and the Catholic Church
By “Awake!” correspondent in Uruguay
FOR many years Uruguay held a unique position in South America. It was noted for its economic prosperity and social legislation that was among the most advanced on the continent.
However, this peaceful and prosperous image has been rapidly deteriorating in recent times. “Halt shortages and inflation!” has been the general cry in the last few years. “We are being choked to death by taxes!” complain businessmen. “Why such scarcity of foodstuffs?” ask housewives. “We are getting starvation wages!” protest the workers.
The traditional, peaceful way of life in Uruguay has been replaced by strikes and worker-student demonstrations. But that is not all. Groups of terrorists have loosed a wave of bombings, robberies, kidnappings and other acts directed principally against the police and the government.
To counter this, the government has restricted individual rights and mobilized its armed forces to combat the terrorists, known as Tupamaros. Because of this turmoil, feelings of fear, anxiety and hopelessness have overtaken many people. Many hoped that national elections held toward the end of 1971 might relieve some of this pressure.
As election day drew near, the political situation appeared confused for both of the traditional, conservative political parties. One is the Partido Nacional (National Party), also known as the blancos. The other is the Partido Colorado (Colorado Party), also called the colorados.
Since 1830 these two parties have taken turns in ruling the country. But an ever-increasing number of persons have desired a drastic change from this long-practiced procedure. They feel that a change is needed to save the country from economic disaster and to restore social peace and order.
Many others, although wanting reforms, fear radical changes. They worry over the changes that might come about in the customary Uruguayan way of life if leftist elements win a victory at the polls. Anyway, winning over the blancos and the colorados in an election appeared quite difficult. In the previous election these parties got over 80 percent of the votes.
The slogan of the leftist parties was: “Unite to win!” But was this possible? Years ago, no one would have taken such a coalition of small parties seriously. Nevertheless, something was happening in Uruguay that was to produce a shocking surprise to many. That something involved the Catholic Church.
Crisis in the Church
The history of the Catholic Church in Uruguay has been an exception to the rule in South America. In 1919 Uruguayan authorities brought about a complete separation of Church and State. After that the power and influence of the clergy diminished. The constitution barred religion from government and gave equal rights to all religions.
However, what has surprised many people lately was seeing more and more priests taking an active role in politics. And not just involving the traditional parties, but this time involving the terrorist movements.
In a surprising television interview, Jesuit priest Juan C. Zaffaroni shocked his audience by publicly approving the terrorists’ conduct. He was asked: “Do you believe that violence is compatible with Christian morals?” His startling reply was: “Christ also would grab a machine gun if he were living now.”
Soon the police began to implicate Catholic priests in the seditious movement. When a group of Tupamaros was captured after kidnapping a prominent banker, one of the group was discovered to be a priest named Indalecio Olivera. Another Uruguayan priest named Uberfil Monzón was arrested in Paraguay and charged with being part of an international ring of insurrectionists with headquarters in Uruguay.
The newspapers El País and La Mañana reported that both police and military forces searching churches in Montevideo and other cities found huge quantities of revolutionary literature. Along with that were said to be arms, ammunition and equipment for making explosive devices. In one church a long-sought-after insurgent was captured.
However, still another surprise awaited sincere Catholics. It was announced publicly that the Catholic Christian Democratic Party would join the Communist FIDEL (Frente Izquierda de Liberación), the socialist party, the revolutionary workers party, the pro-Castro 26 de Marzo movement, and other leftist political groups. Together they would form a new coalition leftist party called Frente Amplio (Broad Front).
Some church officials condemned the “Christian-Communist” fusion. But others approved and even applauded this new alliance. Thus, a deep split occurred in Church circles. Yet, the General Vicar of the Archdiocese of Montevideo, Haroldo Ponce de León, said: “I consider that none of the parties which are represented in the coming elections are debarred to Christians.”
A Jesuit publication, Perspectiva de Diálogo, approved the formation of the Frente Amplio. The publication severely criticized the government for being “repressive of the popular classes for the benefit of the national oligarchy and external colonialism.”
More conservative church members were shocked and disillusioned by some of the clergy’s endorsement of the leftist coalition. A Catholic reader of a prominent Montevideo newspaper wrote: “It seems impossible that there are still priests of God’s people who are striving to become leaders of the Marxist Front . . . they are using the priesthood for support to help the hordes of Lenin, Mao, Castro and other ‘holy’ men.”
A “Hot Campaign”
Tempers flared. The campaign grew hotter. At times it even became “explosive.” Literal bombs were used against rival party headquarters.
Sometimes political campaigning turned into bloody clashes. Injuries and deaths were the unfortunate consequences of the political tug-of-war during the months prior to election day. Afterward even a duel with pistols was fought between two losing presidential candidates over comments made in campaign speeches.
The new leftist coalition, the Frente Amplio, moved toward the elections with a huge public display. Almost all trees and electric poles and portions of the pavement and sidewalks along Montevideo’s main thoroughfares, and in many other cities, were painted with the colors of the new party—red, blue and white.
Brigades of youths were sent to repair and clean streets and plazas. Art shows were sponsored daily in different sections of the city. Traveling first-aid teams offered free medical assistance and checked the blood pressure of people in the streets. Giant street meetings were held to support the Frente’s candidates. The Front’s signs, sound cars, countless leaflets, meetings and other publicity seemed to eclipse the efforts of the other parties.
Outside observers wondered: Would it be possible that the Uruguayan people, tired of their difficulties during recent years, would turn around and favor the Catholic-leftist front? Would the elections be carried out peacefully, since the terrorists favoring the Frente Amplio declared that they were determined to gain the victory by force if necessary?
Election Day a Solution?
Election day finally arrived. Sunday, November 28, dawned bright and clear. The atmosphere was charged with tension. For the first time obligatory voting was enforced with sanctions. A record crowd was expected.
As soon as vote counting began, it was seen that the two traditional parties were taking the majority of votes. The final count showed that the colorado party had won, followed closely by the blancos. The figures showed:
Colorado Party 680,440 votes
Blanco Party 667,860 votes
Frente Amplio 303,178 votes
The new president, Juan M. Bordaberry, took office on March 1, 1972.
A few days after the inauguration fuel prices doubled. Then there was a general increase in prices everywhere, some articles rising 200 percent. Worker strikes and other manifestations of unrest were renewed.
On Wednesday, April 12, fifteen terrorists successfully carried out a spectacular jail break from the Punta Carretas Penitentiary. The prisoners escaped through the sewer system. On Friday, April 14, a series of clashes between terrorists and police resulted in the death of twelve persons.
The following day the Uruguayan Parliament defined the situation as being an “internal state of war” and approved the limiting of personal liberties. More powers were given to the army to repress subversive activities and guard seditious prisoners. Gun battles between terrorists and the armed forces still continue to take their toll in destruction of property and lives. It is obvious that the elections did not solve Uruguay’s problems.
Also the Catholic Church has suffered a hard blow. The disunity demonstrated within her ranks over political issues is very evident. This has caused more and more sincere people to abandon her.
It is obvious that a change is badly needed, not only in Uruguay, but in every land where unrest and insecurity exist. Although men disagree on how this change should come about, God’s infallible Word, the Bible, tells us how it will most certainly occur, not only for Uruguay, but for all humanity. The time for this drastic change is very, very near. On whose side will you be when it does come?