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Pierre Beemans

My wife, Teresa, and I arrived in sunny 30°C Montevideo on February 18, the weekend that the parliamentarians of the newly elected government of President Tabare Vazquez were sworn in. It was the first avowedly leftist government in South America to have won a clear electoral and parliamentary majority. Twenty-five years ago, many of its members were languishing in political prisons. It is hard to seize the scope of such a historical political change in a week and even harder to cover it in a few paragraphs, but for the benefit of those who had to stay behind in sub-zero Ottawa in February I shall try to set out the context and summarize my impressions.

Uruguay has a special place in my heart. I spent a year there in the mid-60s, living in a student house and soaking up the effervescence of what was surely the most educated and socially advanced society in Latin America, at a point when it was heading towards a political crisis that no one would ever have dreamed possible. Uruguay, with barely three million people (half of whom lived in the capital, Montevideo) was called "the Switzerland of South America" because it had one of the highest per capita incomes, the most equitable overall income distribution, and the highest level of education and health services. Building on the wealth that came from the export of beef and wool to European markets, it had developed since the beginning of the 20th century a deeply entrenched two-party (the Blancos and the Colorados) social democracy with welfare and labour provisions that Canada only began to catch up with in the 1960s. There were, of course, pockets of poverty and social injustice, but nothing remotely resembling what obtained in neighbouring Brazil and Argentina.

Still, those were the 1960s. Young people everywhere in Latin America were caught up in the adventure of Fidel Castro and the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship in Cuba, Trade unions began to attract more workers and political parties on the left became more serious challengers to the traditional "liberal" and conservative parties which had so far dominated the fragile democracies that alternated power with military dictatorships in most countries of the region. Captivated by the myth and the mystique of "la guerrilla" and "power to the people", militant students and rural and urban syndicalists in every country joined small revolutionary groups to overthrow "bourgeois oligarchies", struggle against ‘capitalist imperialism’ and bring about "true socialism". Che Guevara set off to Bolivia to do a re-run of the Cuban revolution.

A reaction was not long in coming. The United States was determined that there would not be another Communist state in the Americas. On the political side, it created the Alliance for Progress as a vehicle for massive investments to improve the social conditions that nourished the appeal of the radical left. On the military side, it worked closely with the police and the armed forces of every country to build up their capacities to carry out counter-insurgency campaigns and to counter any political tendencies that might be considered pro-Communist (or anti-American, which was seen as the same thing). Che Guevara was killed in the mountains of Bolivia in October 1967. Within a few years, there were only a handful of countries that were not run by generals.

Uruguay had prospered during the two world wars as a supplier to Europe and North America, but the bloom was off the rose by the early 60s and the country could no longer afford its welfare system. The middle class began to feel the pinch and workers even more. Dissatisfaction with the traditional political system was widespread, but most of it took the form of strikes, demonstrations and long intellectual debates in magazines and the university. Behind the scenes, though, the head of a sugar cane workers union, Raul Sendic, had gone underground and formed a secretive urban guerilla movement called the Tupamaros which attracted some of the brightest young people from the middle and upper class families of Uruguay.

The Tupamaros were well-organized, well-informed, disciplined and imaginative. In the late 1960s they enjoyed some spectacular successes that showed up the police badly. With technical advice from the Americans, the army took over the fight and the President ceded it ever broader and more repressive powers. By 1971 Uruguay was in the grip of a ruthless de facto military dictatorship that was to last for 14 years. The Tupamaros were quickly rounded up and extinguished as a threat to national security.

A maverick former general, Liber Seregni, had persuaded some of the leftist parties to join together into a loose political alliance called the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) in 1971, but it was unable to exercise any significant political role. Thousands of Uruguayans were imprisoned (including General Seregni) or fled into exile, although relatively few were executed or "disappeared". They included not only the traditional Communist Party (which had opposed the Tupamaros), but also trade union leaders of any kind, student leaders, Catholic Church activists, outspoken journalists, and anyone suspected of being "progressive"., Uruguay is a relatively small society and there are few families that were not touched indirectly or directly by the repression, either through links to the left or to the military and police, or to both.

The military turned government back over to the two traditional political parties in 1985, partially because the economy was in a parlous state and partly because of international pressure. It did so under an amnesty whereby all political prisoners were released, former Tupamaros were allowed to form a political party, no legal action would be taken against either military personnel or ex-prisoners, and certain political figures were banned from political life for a period of time. The Frente Amplio joined with some centrist parties in 1989 to broaden its appeal to moderate voters and even managed to win municipal elections in Montevideo, but it was never united or strong enough to overtake the Blancos or the Colorados (the historical governing party) for most of Uruguay’s history) .  

By 2002,the country was in full depression, unemployment had touched 34%, over half of the population was deemed to be below the poverty line and 31% of children were considered to be suffering from chronic malnutrition. The Colorado government of Jorge Batlle seemed incapable of dealing with the situation. In the national elections on October 31, 2004, the Frente Amplio won an absolute majority of 51% in the national elections under the leadership of Tabare Vazquez, a physician turned leader of the Socialist Party. The Blancos picked up 34%, but the Colorados dropped to 10% of the votes cast. The vote reflected the appeal of the moderate progressive policies put forward by Tabare Vazquez and the trust he had engendered as a successful mayor of Montevideo. Even more, perhaps, it reflected the disenchantment of the electorate with the failure of the neoliberal "Washington Consensus" policies espoused by both traditional parties to deal with the collapsing economy and the growing poverty of the country.

We arrived in Montevideo just as the new parliament was being sworn in. The festivities were widespread, the mood of optimism was palpable even in the opposition media (with the exception of the Colorados), and the absence of rancour and grudges was striking . There were also some emotional scenes, such as when the President of the Senate, Jose Mujica, a former Tupamaros guerilla leader, was sworn in and took the review of the Batallon Florida B the army regiment that had captured, imprisoned and tortured him 30 years before. There was a show of solidarity by the other left-of-centre governments in the hemisphere at the inauguration as Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Venezuela were represented by Presidents Lula da Silva, Nestor Kirchner, Ricardo Lagos and Hugo Chavez; Fidel Castro had announced he was coming, but sent last-minute regrets.

As with any incoming government, the honeymoon will not last too long. Vazquez has some monumental challenges in front of him. The economy is picking up again, but there is a lot of ground to be recovered. The economics minister, a moderate named Danilo Astori, has announced that Uruguay will keep its policy commitments to the IMF and the World Bank, which should reassure the international financial community and potential foreign investors. In his inaugural speech, Vazquez said that the focus would be on employment and social problems (poverty alleviation, education, health) and that renewed emphasis would be given to Uruguay's ties with Mercosur and other Latin American countries. This can be taken as a sign that the automatic alignment with US foreign policy practiced by President Batlle has come to an end. One can expect a fair amount of rhetoric from the new Foreign Minister, Reinaldo Gargano, a hard-line Marxist-Leninist, but Vazquez is too wily a pragmatist to alienate the United States.

Tensions can also be expected within the Frente Amplio. It is an alliance of about 15 smaller parties, from Trotskyite anarchists and former Tupamaros to Christian Democrats and a breakaway splinter from the Blancos. Vazquez' own Socialist Party only got 15% of the Frente Amplio's total while the Tupamaros picked up 30% and Astori's centrist Asamblea Uruguay got 18%. There are some signs already of centrifugal tendencies as the government necessarily takes its distance from the party machineries and as Vazquez moves to impose the policy cohesion and institutional unity he will need to weather the storms that await him and win against either the Blancos or Colorados next time around. He is said to have a strong will and a predisposition to a firm hand, so the task may not be beyond him.

March 18, 2005

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