The Washington Diplomat / December 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 are destitute.
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 publicly."
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 administration.
"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 2005, 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."