General Líber Seregni

Founder of an alternative, left-wing party in Uruguay

Líber Seregni was an unusual figure in Latin American politics: an army general who became a hero of the left. He stood for President of Uruguay for a left-wing coalition in 1971, was arrested when the military took power two years later, and spent most of the next decade in prison. In the process, he became a powerful symbol of resistance to the conservative military regimes that dominated the continent.

Líber Seregni Mosquera, soldier and politician: born Montevideo, Uruguay 13 December 1916; President, Frente Amplio 1971-96; married 1941 María Lili Lerena (two daughters); died Montevideo 31 July 2004.

Líber Seregni was an unusual figure in Latin American politics: an army general who became a hero of the left. He stood for President of Uruguay for a left-wing coalition in 1971, was arrested when the military took power two years later, and spent most of the next decade in prison. In the process, he became a powerful symbol of resistance to the conservative military regimes that dominated the continent.

Seregni founded what was to become one of Uruguay's leading political forces, the Frente Amplio (Broad Front). It will probably provide Uruguay with its first socialist president in elections later this year. The FA, which brought together a number of small political factions, was the first serious challenge to the dominance of the country's two traditional political parties, the Colorados and the Blancos (Reds and Whites), which had ruled the country between them since the beginning of the 20th century.

By the early 1970s the economy was in recession and political violence was increasing. A new alternative was badly needed. But, instead, the military decided to intervene, for the first time in decades, to prop up the existing system.

When, in mid-1973, the armed forces took effective control of government, dissolving congress and banning all left-wing political parties, Seregni joined protesters on the streets. He was arrested and, after a spell on parole, was sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment for "betraying" the army, of which he had been a senior member.

Seregni's military career had peaked with a brief spell as army commander in 1968. Before that he had commanded the two main army units, the first and second divisions. But his left-wing sympathies had got him into trouble as far back as 1937, when he was detained during a demonstration in support of the Spanish republicans. He had only graduated from the military academy, as an artillery officer, the previous year. Despite this early setback, he earned regular promotions, reaching deputy chief of staff in 1959, as a colonel, and general in 1963.

For many years Uruguay had enjoyed political stability and economic growth, and liked to regard itself as the Switzerland of Latin America, with advanced welfare provisions and a large public sector. But by 1968, when Seregni was appointed army commander, a Colorado government was struggling to control growing labour and student unrest, and to deal with the urban guerrillas known as the Tupamaros, who had been trying to overthrow the existing order since the beginning of the decade.

When President Jorge Pacheco Areco resorted to emergency powers, Seregni criticised his handling of the situation and applied for early retirement from the army. He realised that the idealistic guerrillas enjoyed a degree of public support, and that a democratic socialist alternative to guerrilla violence was needed to channel discontent with what had become as ramshackle political and economic system. In 1971, Seregni was elected president of the newly formed Frente Amplio, and stood, unsuccessfully, for president of the republic later that year.

Seregni was to continue as president of the FA until 1996, including the 11 years he spent in prison. He was eventually released in March 1984, and took part in the negotiations with the military that led to the holding of elections that November, even though he was still under a banning order. He stood for President for the second time in 1989, again unsuccessfully, but the ultimate goal of political power was drawing closer.

In 1994 the FA achieved electoral parity with the two traditional parties. A Colorado became president in that year, but was forced to form a coalition with the Blancos to keep the FA out. In 1999, the FA candidate, Tabaré Vázquez, finished first in the presidential election, but was defeated in a run-off, when Colorado and Blanco supporters joined forces against him.

Líber Seregni retired from active politics in March this year, but he remained an influential figure, and was consulted regularly by his political heirs. He did not live to see a member of his party elected President, but, just before he died, "the general", as his followers continued to call him, was finally reconciled with the military, and his portrait was once again hung in the gallery of former commanders of the second army division in San José.

His recognition as a significant figure in Uruguayan public life was completed when the (Colorado) government granted him a funeral normally reserved for ministers of state, even though he had never held public office.

Colin Harding



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