Government by the People


Dear Will:

When I was 19, I moved from Montevideo to Rio Branco, Uruguay, while serving a full-time LDS mission. I lived in an uninsulated, cinderblock apartment with a cold tile floor and a bathroom the size of a walk-in shower. In fact, the bathroom was a walk-in shower—exactly as nice as that sounds.

Just over the wall from Casa Frígida lived Doña Celia Terra, the beloved, local matriarch, who watched over and mothered us missionaries. A widow, Doña Celia lived with her adult son (let’s call him Jorge), who treated us with caution and respect. Only rarely would he enter a room with us present, however, and he never left the house. Not ever.

In time I learned that Jorge was not always the Boo Radley of Rio Branco. As best as I could tell with my still-fledgling Spanish, for some time Jorge had been a prisoner of the military leaders of Uruguay, who had seized control of the government a few years prior in an effort to put down a left-wing insurgency group called Los Tupamaros. Whether Jorge was actually affiliated with Los Tupamaros—and more to the point, whether he had actually done anything illegal—I never really knew. What I did know was that he had been tortured over the course of several years prior to his release, and he emerged from his captivity a severely broken man.

As you might guess, all of this was a bit hard for my 19-year-old brain to comprehend—especially in broken Spanish. Plus I knew next to nothing about Uruguayan politics and history. What made matters worse is that the mid-‘70s was an era in Uruguayan history that people were reluctant to talk about at any length. What was clear was that the citizens of Uruguay were deeply ashamed that their once-proud democracy had been transformed into a military dictatorship—this in a country which was once considered a model of stability and democracy, “The Switzerland of South America.”

Later that year, when I was once again living and working in the capital city of Montevideo, there was a widely publicized, constitutional referendum calling for a YES/NO vote. Once again, I understood very little of what was taking place, but the vast majority of the impossible-to-ignore advertising was in support of the proposal. With virtually no discernible campaign to convince people to vote NO, I assumed that the referendum would pass in a landslide.

At last, on November 30, 1980, over 86% of eligible voters cast ballots as required by law. To my utter astonishment, the referendum was soundly defeated, with over 57% voting against it. It seemed impossible. It was only later that I learned that the purpose of the referendum was to legalize in a new constitution the military control of government that so many Uruguayans found so appalling.

It was a remarkable day in the history of democracy—remarkable (to be fair) that the military allowed the vote to begin with, and remarkable that so many were able to see through prevailing propaganda to reaffirm “government by the people” in keeping with established constitutional law. For me it was also the most powerful example I have witnessed of a the truth taught in the Book of Mormon: “Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right” (Mosiah 29:26).

As we face an election of our own in the days and months ahead, I invite you to ponder that truism and the obligation it implies. Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, let your voice be heard. Truth and right will win out so long as good people refuse to sit idly by. Please vote.


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