Uruguayan left faces old foe from the 90s

The Uruguayan left is mobilizing to win a second five-year term this fall. And with the campaign in the final stretch efforts have reached a fever pitch to elect 74-year-old Jose "Pepe" Mujica in the first round voting Oct. 25.

The race, so far, has shown that the former rightwing traditional parties are still in retreat as a result of the disastrous results of advocating unbridled neoliberalism during the 1990s.

Nevertheless campaign missteps by Mujica, which have included reckless statements have caused the race to become a bit closer. The result has been an increase in the number of undecided voters which could force the election into a second round in November and lead to a loss of the left’s majority in congress.

The election is being cast as a choice between two political models: One favoring further government funded social reforms, and the other, a return to the neoliberal policies of the 1990s. Whoever wins in the October 25 voting or in a second round on November 29 will be facing a situation where foreign investment is advancing rapidly over Uruguay’s agricultural lands and where continued growth requires a reshaping of the country’s energy policies. The future of Uruguay could be shaped by the ideology of the next president.

Uruguay’s two traditional right wing parties are still rebuilding after a catastrophic loss of support in the 1990s. For years Uruguay’s traditional parties had garnered 90% of the votes. But after an economic crisis brought on by problems in Brazil and Argentina saw Uruguay lose 20% of its GDP from 1999 to 2002 and suffer a banking collapse their support plummeted to about 40% to 45%. Their only chance to regain power in this fall’s election is to patch together a rightwing alliance in a second round vote. But, so far, opinion poll experts are still predicting that the Frente Amplio will prevail even in a second round.

An October poll by FACTUM shows the Left Broad Front Party (Frente Amplio) obtaining more votes than the combined total of the rigtwing Blanco and Colorado Parties. With two weeks to go before the election the Broad Front Party had 44% of the votes, the Blanco Party 29% of the votes and the Colorado Party 11%.

The biggest uncertainty is whether the Broad Front will be able to convince enough of the 10% undecided voters to win the 50% plus one vote to win in the first round as it did in 2004.

"The 2004 election seemed much clearer than the situation today." said Oscar Bottinelli of the polling firm FACTUM. "At this point in 2004 the Frente Amplio had the absolute majority, they had the votes to do it. What occurred is that the number of undecided votes was very low in 2004."

Uruguayans will also vote for members of its 30-member Senate and 99-member Chamber of Deputies. Seats are caclulated based on a proportional vote system. If the Broad Front carries 48% of the first round vote, it will maintain a majority control over congress due to the discarding of null and blank votes.1

Two ballot initiatives are also before the voters — an intiative to annul an amnesty law for those responsible for 1970s Dirty War crimes and a change in voting laws to allow Uruguayans to vote abroad. The Frente Amplio supports both initiatives while the two traditional parties oppose them.

Tabaré Vazquez, 69, who lead the Frente Amplio to its first victory over the traditional Blanco and Colorado Parties, will not be running for reelection. Vazquez announced in 2007 that he would not seek constitutional changes to run for a second consecutive term. But under current rules he can run once more in a future election.

Social Advancement Versus Return to Neoliberalism

Vazquez, a socialist, has successfully articulated a moderate left with friendly U.S. relations. The proceeds from from a five-year economic expansion have been channeled into social reforms while adhering to moderate economic policies.

The Vazquez approach has brought criticism from the left for its continued commitment to IMF loan payments and flirtation with the Free Trade of the Americas agreement. Vazquez signed a preliminary trade amd investment treaty with the United State when he welcomed George Bush to the country in 2007.

Nevertheless, Vazquez has also reopened diplomatic relations with Cuba, welcoming Cuban eye doctors into the country. The Cuban eye surgery program Operation Miracle treated 10,000 patients and a joint Cuban-Uruguayan Jose Marti Ophthalmology Hospital has been opened. Vazquez has also signed energy and trade agreements with Venezuela and supported its entrance into the South American trade bloc Mercosur without stirring much controversy.

But the major thrust of the Vazquez administration has been in the area of wage improvements, labor law protections and poverty reduction and health care. An innovative education program has put a personal computer in the hands of most school children. A health care reform has doubled state health care coverage to 1.4 million Uruguayans. The tax system has been reformed and the rural work day reduced to eight hours. Poverty programs undertaken since 2005 have lifted 400,000 Uruguayans out of poverty. 2,3

Vazquez also oversaw the first partial lifting of impunity for 1970s Dirty War human rights crimes. As a result two former presidents, a foreign minister and a number of police and military officers have been prosecuted for crimes committed during the 1970s Dirty War. Vazquez also searched for the missing bodies of some 200 dirty war victims.

The Frente Amplio has chosen Jose "Pepe" Mujica, 74, a former political prisoner, torture victim and a leader of the 1960s Tupamaro guerrilla movement, as its candidate. Mujica constructed his political movement after leaving prison at the end of the military dictatorship in the mid-1980s and rose to lead the Movement of Popular Participation, a member of the Frente Amplio coalition. He has been a congressional deputy and senator. He served as secretary of agriculture under the Vazquez Administration.

Mujica has chosen to repackage the Vazquez formula by selecting Economic Minister Danilo Astori, 69, as his running mate. Mujica beat Astori, a socialist and Vazquez favorite, for the nomination with the support of the Movement of Popular Participation and the Communist Party. He is expected to keep Uruguay more firmly on the left.

But the focus will be mostly on domestic social advances. So far foreign policy statements have consisted mostly of reassuring platitudes. President Tabare Vazquez met with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in September and he told the powerful establishment Council of the Americas that investors are going to be safe during the next Frente Amplio adminstration. Uruguay has benefited from the perception of conservative economic management and has been able to restructure its foreign debt through the internatioal bond market. Foreign money is also attracted to Uruguay’s stock market.

Legacy of Poverty Reduction, Education, Health Gains

U.S. pressure to pull Uruguay back into the neoliberal free trade mindset is expected to remain strong. Mujica and Astori met at the U.S. embassy in Uruguay with U.S. Commerce Representative Walter Bastian on Oct. 3. Upon leaving Astori announced that entrance into the Free Trade of Americas was still being ruled out but the United States had stressed a desire to continue developing trade ties through its existing bilateral trade agreement.

During a Washington press conference with Secretary of State Clinton, Vazquez in response to a question about Venezuela arms purchases, condemned the buildup. "With respect to the arms race, not only is our country worried, but we have already expressed time and again our position against an arms race. We believe that it is quite inconvenient to the region to devote such significant economic resources toward purchasing arms."

The issue of how Uruguay views Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been bubbling up occaisionally during the election campaign. Uruguay supports a number of Venezuelan designed alternative projects aimed at promoting idenpendent Latin American political and economic objectives. The Vazquez administration also has questioned the opening of new U.S. military bases in Colombia and has called for the return of deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya to office. Following his Washington visit Vazquez was in Margaritas, Venezuela signing the charter to the new Latin American development bank, Banco Sur.

The Frente Amplio Party platform voted in December 2008 — a document which has been the basis for policy in the past — calls for Uruguay to enter the Bolivarian Alliance for the Our Americas, the Venezuelan aligned alternative to the American sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas. The Frente Amplio platform also opposes Plan Colombia and the Mexico and Central America security project, Plan Merida. Uruguay has joined the Union of South American Nations and is a founder of the alternative television network Telesur.

Mujica also condemned the Venezuelan arms buildup in an appearance before members of the B’nai B’rith organization Oct. 2. He said Uruguay would follow a more cautious foreign policy than Venezuela and that he admired the approach of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva who had shown an ability to resolve social conflicts.

 Vice Presidential Candidate Astori also assured the Jewish organization that Uruguay did not support Iran’s foreign policy which it considered "belicose and against dialogue."  Iran maintains an embassy in Montevideo. 4

Mujica is seen as man who will be watching out for the interest of the poor and person who has a historic symbolic role to play as the first Tupamaro president. His campaign slogan is "We’re going for more." The next four years will bring more social advances and wealth redistribution. "If there is a difference in this electoral process it’s the will to redistribute in favor of the great majority" Mujica told a crowd in the town of Tacuarembo. "We are convinced that the economy has to grow but we are also convinced that we have to grow and redistribute. Because if we don’t redistribute at the same time that the economy grows there will be no development. There could be enrichment but at the same time social problems multiply and there is an increase in poverty. That is the essence of this election."

Among his objectives is to push ahead with a major expansion in housing and build on the gains in education and health care. The Frente Amplio political campaign platform also calls for continued economic growth with social justice. Among the objectives are a 6% per year increase in GDP for the next five-year period and creation of 200,000 new jobs. A continuation of poverty programs is aimed at pulling an additional 350,000 persons out of poverty. And the regressive Value Added Tax will be reduced by two points to 20%.

"What makes Mujica attract (votes) is that he has constructed an image of an older man that thinks like an older person, that thinks with a fullness, openess, with a lot of understanding, very concerned about the poor people, with the weak, the defenseless. This is the image that he has constructed," Bottinelli said. 5

Mujica also has consistently shown a tendency to irreverence and unpolitical candor. Statements by Mujica in September caused criticism for being flippant and lacking presidential form. Mujica apologized for the statements he has made in a recent biography, Pepe Coloquios, and in a interview given to the Argentine newspaper La Nacion saying they were taken out of context and not meant to be taken seriously. The comments criticized, Argentina’s Nestor and Cristina Kirchner – "they seem like they’re progressives but they’re also Peronists.", Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez — "talks too much" and Tabare Vazquez  "Tabare is in love with dignity." and he also questioned the usefulness of the human rights movement with such statements as "justice smells of vengeance and "I could care less about justice." Questions about the purpose and judgement involved in making the comments may have cost the Frente Amplio enough support to prevent a first round win. And the party could lose its majority in congress. President Vazquez termed the streak of offhand comments "stupidities." 6

Right Vows to Take Chainsaw to Left Spending

But the drop off in support for the Frente Amplio has not resulted in an increase in support for the Blanco and Colorado parties but, instead, pushed up the number of undecided voters.

The strongest challenger to the Frente Amplio is Sixty-eight-year-old former President Luis Alberto Lacalle (1990-1995) of the National Party (also called the Blanco Party). Running on the Colorado Party ticket is Pedro Bordaberry, 49, the son of former dictator Juan Maria Bordaberry (1972-1976). Two other small parties are also competing, the center-left Independent Party with candidate Pablo Mieres, 50, polling 3% support and the Frente Amplio breakaway, the far left Popular Assembly Party, with former Tupamaro Raul Rodriguez, 66, as its candidate showing 1% support.

Former President Lacalle is remembered as an anti-union president who sought to enact numerous neoliberal policies advocated by the Washington Consensus. He opened the general election campaign with a pledge to take a "chainsaw" to government spending and recommended that foreign investors hold off on new projects until after the elections.

One of Uruguay’s best known rightwing politicians, Lacalle has called for tougher action against crime including a lowering of the age for adult criminal prosecution. He vows to review new tax laws and regulations on rural farm work hours. He is advocating deregulation of the energy sector and supports consideration of the possible use of nuclear power. He also advocates changes to Uruguay’s poverty programs which would require more work from aid recipients. He has called welfare recipients lazy people.

Lacalle, who once vowed to change Uruguay into a Latin American Signapore, no doubt would reverse the current course and realign Uruguay more closely with U.S. economic and foreign policy objectives. He is a member of the Club of Madrid which advocates bringing democracy to Cuba and a strong supporter of Israel, who is a member of the board of the Public Affairs Committee of the Jerusalem Summit.

Lacalle, if he won, would move to complete a Free Trade Agreement with the United States. One of his economic advisers told members of the Uruguayan-American Chamber of Commerce that the Frente Amplio had let the train of free trade with the United States pass by and that the Blanco Party would move things ahead under Lacalle and Vice President Candidate Jorge Larrañaga, 53.

Sergio Abreu, who served as Foreign Minister in the Lacalle administration, told the group. "Lacalle and Larranaga know what to do. They will carry out a government policy that takes an express train without intermediate stops." 7

The Lacalle campaign has sought to undermine the public’s confidence in Mujica’s ability to lead the country and have accused him of being a communist who will do what he wants once elected and will not be bound by the centrist policies of Vice President Astori.

The Uruguayan Labor Federation PIT-CNT is one of the organizations which most would stand to lose if there were a return to the policies of the neoliberal decade of the 1990s. Lacalle is an old foe who would be opposed strongly if he is elected. For labor the difference between then and now is the difference between hope and despair.

During the Vazquez administration the ranks of unionize workers increased sharply to 320,000 against 120,000 in 2002, one of the highest rates of per capita union participation in Latin America. In August, the labor organization organized a nation wide march to remember the cutbacks in social programs and the anti-labor bias of the decade.

Uruguayan labor remembers an onerous fixed tax on workers irregardless of wage level, a lack of wage increases and a paralysis of collective bargaining. For labor, the policies of the 1990s, carried out first by Lacalle, and continued by Colorado Party Presidents Julio Maria Sanguinetti (1995-2000) and Jorge Batlle (2000-2005), set the stage for the financial collapse of Uruguay of 2002 — the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history.

Uruguayan Labor Mobalizes to Defend Recent Gains

Fernando Pereira, executive secretary of the PIT-CNT Labor Federation, recalls "The union movement stopped together with the other organizations: cooperatives, retired persons, also small and medium businesses, large business and rural producers. Now in 2009, what we’re saying is this model never again because the life of Uruguayans was impoverished."

At it’s worst momement in 2003, Pereira said, poverty in Uruguay hit 30% or one million of a 3.2 million population. 8

The labor march to recall the neoliberalism of the 1990s ended in Montevideo with a gathering of 20,000 on Aug. 27. A cardboard chainsaw ripped to pieces and lifted into the air by baloons symbolized the protest.

Among those attending was Wilson Villa, a member of the Uruguayan Graphics Union. Villa said that use of wage councils made up of labor, the private sector and the government had produced substantial advances during the last five years. "We in the Graphics Union obtained a recovery in our salaries. We were very behind but we have recovered at least 20% (in real terms) of the salaries. Lacalle is not from the working class and he is going to try to keep us from achieving what we are achieving in this government."

Another five years of left government will be important in shaping dramatic economic changes that are already under way.

Uruguay’s economic boom has poured new investment into the country. Foreign investment has risen from a yearly average of $350 million in 2004 to $1.24 billion in the current adminstration. In 2008 foreign investment reached a record $2.05 billion.

The Frente Amplio has pledged to keep welcoming foreign investment in order to spur growth that can be channeled into social programs. But some aspects of the recent boom are raising questions of national sovereignty.  Enormous foreign investments in agriculture land, foresty and meat packing are making it necessary to look carefully at current agrarian land policies.

The Frente Amplio platform calls for reforms that limit foreign ownership of Uruguayan land, put controls on use of farmland and promote  land for small Uruguayan owners. Mujica has said he favors some sort of limit on the amount of land an individual can own. And he thinks that farm coporations operating in the country should be required to be listed on the stock market so there is less secrecy about their operations.  He told a recent farm conference "I don’t think the government should take a decision (on land ownership) by a simple majority. This requires the magnitude of a national agreement. Personally I think there is a need to put a cap on land property." 9

Uruguay’s energy policies are in the midst of reshaping to handle further economic expansion. The Frente Amplio has favored renewable energy and has an objective of generating 50% of electricity from renewable energy sources such as biomass and wind power. It also plans to search for more energy sources.

While not as dramatic as the gigantic Brazilian offshore find, Uruguay is expected to find some oil and natural gas offshore soon and has issued exploration contracts to the Brazilian government owned Petrobras, Argentine-Spanish Repsol and the Portuguese Galp.

The Frente Amplio is promising five more years of government activism. Jessica Acuña, an Uruguayan medical student, is among the young persons backing the Frente Amplio. "We’re fighting for education more than anything else. Five years is not enough. We have to deepen and go a bit farther with the changes. Why should we go back to the same old thing?"


1. Encuesta. Factum dio a conocer ayer resultados de octubre: FA 44%, PN 29%, cayó tres puntos; PC 11% y 10% de indecisos, La Republica, Oct. 9, 2009. Definición en Octubre depende de indecisos que capte el FA. Encuestas. Mujica se mantiene, Lacalle cae y Bordaberry sube, El Pais, Oct. 10, 2009.

2. Frente Amplio Platform: Propuestas Para Seguir Construyendo Un Pais De Primera, Frenteamplio.org.uy; December Party Platform: Programa de la fuerza politica.

3. The last five years Uruguay has experienced  some of the best economic growth rates its history 6.1% 2005, 4.6% in 2006, 7.6% 2007 8.9% in 2008. Due to the global economic crisis growth for 2009 is projected to drop to 0.6% then begin to rise again in 2010 to 3.5% according to the International Monetary Fund.

4. La Formula Presidencial Frenteamplista respondio preguntas anoche en una reunion en la B’nai B’rith. Mujica se ve más cerca del estilo de Lula que de Chávez, Ultima Noticias, Oct. 2, 2009.

5. Interview Oscar Bottinelli, director of the opinion polling firm FACTUM.

6. Enfoques section: "No sé qué ideología tienen los Kirchner", La Nacion Sept. 13, 2009; Mujica apologizes: Mujica: La justicia es una institución humana, esencial para la convivencia, Frenteamplio.org.uy Sept. 15, 2009; A Lo Hecho Pecho. Pepetalcuales.com Sept. 18,  2009.

7. Economistas defienden la "denostada" década de 1990, El Observador, Sept. 10,  2009.

8. Interview Fernando Pereira, executive secretary of the Plenario Intersindical de Trabajadores-Convencion Nacional de Trabajadores (PIT-CNT).

9. Ultima Noticias, Oct. 3, 2009, El Candidato del Frente Amplio, Jose Mujica, expuso ayer varias propuestas en materia de agro en el ciclo "El Campo Elige" organizado por Seragro.

Leave a comment