Uruguay had, after the 1904 civil war, a reputation for stability for much of the 20th century. With a predominantly urban and educated population of about 3 million, and a system of ‘co-participation’ between parties in government, it was dubbed the ‘Switzerland’ of Latin America. But the poor were effectively marginalized from the 1950s, and during the 1960s rampant inflation and wage freezes, combined with increasing repression of labour and students, fuelled unrest. The Tupamaros guerrilla movement was also founded in the early 1960s. Against this background, the military seized power in 1973, suppressed all political activity, imposed sweeping controls over the media and imprisoned 7000 suspected political opponents.
However, in 1980 the government lost a referendum on a new constitution to enshrine a single-candidate presidential candidate. Despite the arrest of those campaigning for a ‘no’ vote and propaganda linking a ‘no’ vote to terrorism, 57% (of a turn-out of 87%) voted ‘no’. Under martial law people could not safely celebrate in public, but ‘no’ voters wore yellow (the opposition colour), and followed the suggestion of a private radio station to take part in a ‘smile revolution’.
In 1981 a SERPAJ group was founded to agitate for human rights, and during 1983 public denunciations, fasts and marches (sparked by outrage at the torture and rape of a group of young people) culminated in general strikes in January and June 1984. Elections were held in November 1984.