Uruguay is the Latest South American
Country to Veer Left
November 25th, 2004
by Larry Luxner
Uruguay has taken a dramatic turn to the
left, with last month's election of socialist physician Tabaré
Vázquez as president.
The Oct. 31 election ended 170 years of domination by the Colorado
and Blanco parties. According to official results, Vázquez's
Frente Amplio (FA) party obtained 50.45% of the votes, compared
with 34.30% for the Blanco party and 10.36% for the ruling Colorado
party of President Jorge Batlle.
Vázquez, a 64-year-old oncologist and former mayor of
Montevideo, has said he will place greater emphasis on social
issues while distancing himself from the United States on a
range of economic, trade and foreign policy issues.
This follows a recent trend in which Latin American countries
have replaced their pro-Washington, conservative governments
with leftist ones. The trend began with the 1998 election of
populist Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, and has continued
with the victories of Luís Inazio "Lula" da
Silva in Brazil, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Ricardo Lagos
in Chile and Lucio Gutiérrez in Ecuador.
Vázquez will be inaugurated Mar. 1 for a five-year term,
taking charge at a time of severe economic crisis. According
to the state-run National Institute of Statistics, 31% of Uruguay's
3.4 million people are poor; of that percentage, almost 100,000
In addition, Health Ministry figures show that, as of last July,
19% of Uruguayan children showed signs of severe malnutrition,
while 31% suffered from chronic malnutrition.
"Everything indicates that with the inauguration of Vázquez,
we will be in a new country that will put an end to neo-liberal
policies to focus attention on social problems and abandon automatic
alignment with the United States to shift towards the Southern
Common Market (Mercosur) and reintegration with the rest of
Latin America," said political analyst Jaime Yaffé.
Uruguayans also said "yes" in the elections to a proposed
constitutional reform making the property and management of
water the exclusive responsibility of the state.
"This is a truly revolutionary occurrence," said Vice
President-elect Rodolfo Nin Novoa. In both houses of the new
Congress, the FA will be just one vote short to reach the special
three-fifths majority, which under the Constitution is necessary
for the Senate and Chamber of Deputies to make important decisions
that will consolidate its program of change.
"We will call on honest men in the Colorado and Blanco
parties to accompany us, assuming responsibilities in different
functions of the government," said Vázquez. The
elite of the two traditional parties responded negatively.
Former President Luís Alberto Lacalle said the election
results "sent a loud and clear message" of unhappiness
with the status quo.
"It's the first time in Uruguay's history that the government
is not ruled by the Blanco or Colorado parties," Lacalle
told the Washington Diplomat by phone from his ranch in central
Uruguay. "Battle's government was a study in inefficiency
and bad luck. He had majorities [in both the Senate and the
Chamber of Deputies] but didn't accomplish a thing."
Lacalle, a lifelong Blanco who was president of Uruguay from
1990 to 1995, said the election victory "gives the leftist
coalition Frente Amplio a majority in both houses, so they'll
have no excuses in the future for not getting things done. That
puts a lot of responsibility on this new government, and it's
already begun to show some cracks. They have already disagreed
According to the former president, Vázquez's new economics
minister, Danilo Astori, has been rebuffed in public by his
new foreign affairs minister, Reinaldo Gargano, a "diehard
Marxist," over the issue of foreign investment in telecommunications.
"Vázquez has said that before signing any investment
treaty with the United States, he wants to consult with Argentina,
Brazil and Paraguay. There's no legal obligation to do so,"
he said. "Mercosur will be 10 years old on Jan. 1. It was
founded by me and three other presidents [of Argentina, Brazil
and Paraguay], and was always meant to be an economic and commercial
venture. Now they're putting political content into a treaty
that doesn't allow it. We are a very small country in between
two giants, and my party is rabidly against Brazil or Argentina
having any oversight over us."
Lacalle predicted "there will be a big battle on that"
on Dec. 9 in Cuzco, Peru, where a group of leftist leaders including
Hugo Chávez of Venezuela will proclaim a "Confederation
of South American States."
The FA victory will mark a substantial change in foreign policy
followed by the outgoing Batlle government, which in its alliance
with the United States dispensed with Mercosur and opted for
the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) promoted by the Bush
"Historically," FA deputy Carlos Pita told the newsletter
Noticias Aliadas, "Uruguay was a point of reference for
the continent in matters of foreign policy, perhaps due to the
respect it had gained thanks to its long democratic tradition.
But in reality this was being lost in the last governments,
which by aligning themselves with the United States lost all
capacity for independent decision-making."
Among other things sure to alienate the Bush administration,
Vázquez has made it clear that the day he's inaugurated,
he will resume diplomatic ties with Cuba. Those ties were broken
by Batlle in April 2002, after Uruguay sponsored a United Nations
resolution condemning the Castro regime's human-rights record.
Castro responded by calling Battle a "lackey" of the
White House, prompting Batlle to break ties immediately.
The promise to resume ties with Havana became an election issue
in Uruguay, a traditionally progressive country where many voters
have warm feelings for Castro. Even though trade between the
two countries is negligible, thousands of Uruguayans have studied
in Cuba, and many of them admire the fact that Castro has survived
the U.S. trade embargo for over 40 years.
"My gut feeling is that Chávez, who is absolutely
delighted that Vázquez won, will strike a deal,"
said one observer, who asked not to be named. "As soon
as Vázquez announces he's re-established diplomatic relations
with Cuba, Chávez will supply cheap oil to Uruguay."
Despite his many differences with Vázquez, Lacalle says
he thinks resuming ties with Cuba is a good idea. "I think
it's much better to have relations, especially to help the dissidents
inside Cuba - especially with a foreign affairs minister who
says publicly that he's a Marxist-Leninist."
He added, however, that "before, our embassy in Havana
was much more political and apt to help the dissidents. Now
it will be a pro-Castro embassy."
Lacalle said there's no question that all the diplomats at the
Uruguayan Embassy in Washington will be replaced, starting with
Ambassador Hugo Fernández Faingold. Perhaps that explains
why the embassy didn't return any of our phone calls seeking
comment for this story.
David Michaels, founder and chairman emeritus of the New York-based
Uruguayan-American Chamber of Commerce, said it's better that
political change in Uruguay came sooner than later.
He told the Diplomat that Vázquez, who made a lot of
promises during the election campaign, will be able to deliver
on those promises "only with a sound economic policy and
further investment promotion."
He added that although most Uruguayans are happy with Astori
- who is widely respected across the political spectrum - some
are concerned that Vázquez won't be able to control the
demands of leftist extremists within his coalition, and that
Astori's economic plans will be disrupted by those elements.
"In 2004, Uruguay will embark upon a new era of political
development. It is in the interest of all to participate in
a non-partisan manner to assist the new administration in its
efforts to further the country's economic growth, particularly
during these turbulent times," he said. "In all elections,
there are those who are happy, and others who are not. We must
all direct our energy for the long-term benefit of the country,
and the social justice of its people."
Juan Ihno Gruber, director of Bestway Travel - a leading Montevideo
travel agency - said he can already feel a new sense of optimism
in the air.
"Before, there was a sense of defeat among the general
public. The people decided they wanted a change, and did it
in a very peaceful way. They didn't even break a window,"
he said, noting that all his employees voted for Vázquez.
"Even though people have the same difficulties, just the
fact that they have hope makes them consume more."
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