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The Story Behind the Uruguayan Elections

The international headlines all read something to this effect

The international headlines all read something to this effect, “In Uruguay:
Ex-Guerrilla Fighter Headed for Runoff Vote in November.” Attention-grabbing
as it is, that headline doesn’t do justice to the complex story behind this
ex-guerrilla fighter being on the verge of becoming Uruguay’s next president.
This story intertwines plot lines of economic hardship’s goad towards anger,
social inequity’s call to action, violence’s inevitable escalation, democracy’s
slide into dictatorship, impunity’s lingerings and a society’s tremendous capacity
to persevere through it all, heal itself and ultimately advance. This story
offers several timely lessons that the world could benefit from learning, as
the present economic situation requires an understanding of the links between
economic justice, the use of violence and the upholding of, as well as the straying
away from, democratic principles.

José Mujica, the leftist Frente Amplio’s presidential candidate, won
47.5 percent of the vote on Sunday, October 25, in a nation where voting is
obligatory, so this number truly does reflect the will of the people of Uruguay.
But the law requires “50 percent + 1 vote” for victory in these elections,
so Mujica will face his challenger, Luis Alberto Lacalle, of the National Party,
who won 28.5 percent of the vote, in the upcoming runoff election. Supporters
of the Colorado Party will likely vote to oust the ruling leftist party, having
won 16.7 percent of the votes, while the Independents and “Others”
will provide the deciding 7.3 percent of votes. The hurdle is not high for the
Frente Amplio, but the numbers are extremely close.

Hurdles were already high, however, for José Mujica to get to the position
he has already achieved. He was a farmer when he joined the Tupamaro movement
back in the early 1960’s. The Tupamaros were a coalition of the Movimiento de
Apoyo al Campesino, the Peasant Support Movement and urban trade unions, with
the slogan, “Worlds divide us; action unites us.” Their initial actions
were to rob banks and wealthy businesses and pass the loot out in the poor neighborhoods
of Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo. They were responding to economic difficulties
that had been widening the gap between the wealthy and the working class which
had been suffering through the combination of high inflation and mass unemployment
since the late 1950’s, while student uprisings and labor unrest were failing
to bring about any policy initiatives that might help. The band of twentieth-century
Robin Hoods grew in power and strength as poverty continued to plague the nation.
By 1965, they were so successful at embarrassing the government that the US
“Office of Public Safety” (OPS) was brought to Uruguay to help dissipate
the civil unrest by training the police and intelligence forces in torture and
crowd-control techniques.

In 1967, a new president took actions that exacerbated this situation, planting
the seed from which the subsequent 17 years of brutal state repression grew.
He first instituted price and wage freezes – trying to combat high inflation
– which led to increased labor disputes. This, in turn, led the president to
declare a “state of emergency,” followed by the repeal of constitutional
safeguards, more aggressive repression of demonstrations, imprisonment of political
dissidents and the further use of torture during interrogations. It was only
after this increase in the level of state brutality that the Tupamaros adopted
more violent tactics, such as kidnapping and engaging in armed battle with police
forces. The president responded in kind by declaring all-out martial law for
nine months, then reimposing it a few months after having ended it when the
public response to Nelson Rockefeller’s visit to the country turned violent.

In 1971, the Tupamaros and the government declared a truce so that peaceful
elections could be held. The Colorado Party president, who was attempting to
change the constitution to allow himself to run for a second term, was opposed
not only by the National Party, but by a new coalition of left-wing groups,
including socialists, communists, trade unions, advocates for the poor and a
new political organization created by the Tupamaros. This was the birth of the
Frente Amplio, and it represented an effort by guerrilla fighters and other
agitators to become legitimized by the democratic process – a turn from violent
and destabilizing tactics toward working for peaceful change. This move to lay
down their arms was, in fact, a break in a long tradition of political violence,
as the Nationals and the Colorados had engaged in two separate wars with each
other after the Eastern Republic of Uruguay was established, drawing upon changing
alliances with the neighboring nations of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, as
well as with Britain and France, even drawing upon the might of the United States
in the twentieth century to help them maintain the status quo.

Influence by the United States in the affairs of Uruguay arose again in 1971,
as the nation’s self-determination was obstructed again by outside forces. As
documents that were recently declassified by the United States National Archives
reveal, in a series of direct conversations, US President Richard Nixon asked
Brazil’s de facto president, Garrastaz Médici, to intervene in the Uruguayan
elections with US aid, using covert actions, to make sure that the Frente Amplio
would not win. These discussions were part of a wider-ranging secret pact between
the two presidents to combat communist movements throughout Latin America. And
although the documents were only recently released, suspicions about untoward
US involvement against the leftists, as evidenced by the OPS as well as a previous
incident in which a suspected CIA agent was murdered, have colored the Uruguayan
view of the US as empire rather than shining beacon of democracy for a long

The president’s bid for a second term failed, but his hand-picked successor
won the elections under suspicious circumstances. He further suspended civil
liberties, brought in the army to police the country, appointed military officers
to many top government positions, then bowed to pressure to act as the figurehead
of a bloodless coup d’état, under which he altogether dissolved Congress,
suspended the Constitution and outlawed the Frente Amplio. That regime would
remain in power – with a large number of political dissidents imprisoned under
horrible conditions and many other Uruguayos fleeing the country – for more
than a decade.

In 1984, after all pretenses at a civilian presidency had fallen by the wayside
and a military general had been appointed president, massive protests and a
general strike finally helped convince the military to cede its power and reestablish
democracy. The Frente Amplio reemerged, but had far to go to rebuild the coalition.
The newly elected Colorado Party president decided that it would be best to
move the country forward and not prosecute the military officials who were known
to have committed human rights violations, establishing a law of amnesty that
is popularly known today as the “Law of Impunity.” The repeal of this
law was, in fact, one of the ballot issues voted upon during recent presidential
elections. Despite Uruguay’s Supreme Court having ruled the law to be unconstitutional
only days before the election, its repeal was voted down by the people of Uruguay.
While the wounds still haunt the nation, perhaps after two decades, it is too
late to try to reopen wounds that Uruguayans have learned to lie with for so
many years now.

The next period, leading up to the elections of 2004, saw the Colorado and
National Parties alternately vying for power and supporting each other against
the Frente Amplio which gained 40 percent of the seats in each house of parliament,
thus breaking the hold of the two parties. Perhaps this was an expression of
the desire to match the rejection of violence with the strength of the democratic
principle of balance of power. Or perhaps it was simply the result of the enforcement
of obligatory voting – with fines and denial of services, even of pay, for government
employees – that pushes citizens to be engaged in seeing that their government
functions in their interests, thereby eliminating one of the greatest problems
that exists in the political system of the United States, where lack of participation,
combined with the lack of campaign-financing restrictions, allows those with
the most resources to decide the elections. For two decades, the Frente Amplio
grew in power and popularity, keeping the pressures of modern imperialism in
the form of corporate neoconservativism in check, and in 2004, the Frente Amplio
ascended to the presidency.

The president of Uruguay is barred from holding office for two terms in a row,
and so the ruling party’s José Mujica followed through the primary process
and was elected to become the ruling party’s candidate for the presidency. He
stresses his humble origins and is apt to speak his mind. He has only a high
school education and spent 14 years in prison during the military dictatorship.
Yet he was able to gain a seat in the Senate, and then become minister of livestock,
agriculture and fisheries under President Tabaré Vazquez. He states that
he will follow in the mold of Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da
Silva – a pragmatist who has focused on addressing Brazil’s poverty with promising
results, as well as managing the economy with a mind toward attracting foreign
investment – while Mujica’s political enemies try to paint him as an extremist
along the lines of Hugo Chávez.

As reported in The New York Times/International Herald Tribune,
the Frente Amplio lowered the unemployment rate by about half and moved the
percentage of people classified as poor from 35 to 20 since 2002. According
to opinion polls, Vazquéz enjoys an approval rating of 60 percent, a
testament to this doctor’s prescription of taxing the wealthy to finance social
programs such as low-income housing and healthcare expansion. His party has
brought the nation through the world economic crisis with a steady hand so far,
as reported upon in this Forex report.

This is the beginning of a long-awaited experiment in joining socialism with
democracy in Uruguay, and it is the National Party’s Lacalle who faces high
hurdles to unseat the popular leftists on his platform of lowering taxes and
privatizing industry. But at least 47.5 percent of Uruguayans understand that
social justice and national strength go hand in hand as the alternative, dealing
with social strife born of myopic policy, can not only be dangerous for democracy,
but is, in the end, wasteful and costly.

Uruguay’s story, the Frente Amplio’s story and Mujica’s story, together, comprise
a lesson in perseverance of the idea of socialism, a fire that engulfed Latin
America with the force of Argentina’s own iconic Che Guevara, but which was
snuffed out when the movement became most dangerous to the world’s most powerful
ruling class, that is, when it tried to become a legitimate political movement,
and its influence was feared by capitalists, Christians and Conservatives of
the West who saw themselves as individualists and socialism as state tyranny
over individual rights.

The Uruguayan author, Eduardo Galeano, recently said, “We believe that
our country has shown in the first years of the Frente Amplio Party being in
office that we are no longer that country that was paralyzed by fear.”
He was speaking at a rally in support of the repeal of the Law of Impunity,
but he was also referring to Uruguay’s struggle with repression that came about
because of this fear of how socialism would change society. Instead of trying
to meet the needs of the impoverished people, who rose up in anger and desperation
to have their voices heard, instead of heeding the message that the Tupamaros
were trying to send about social inequity, fear led Uruguay’s elites down the
path of escalating state violence and repression, straight into the depths of
military junta hell.

And yet, not only a strong democracy, but successful socialist ideas flourish
anew, vanquishing the illusion that socialist state policy and democratic self-rule
are mutually exclusive. Uruguay’s story is ultimately one of hope. This hope
is scripted in a different kind of narrative than that which is accepted as
truth in countries like the United States, where “free market capitalism”
is so closely associated with freedom and democracy. Uruguay’s story rejects
this association.

Because Uruguay’s cultural heritage embraces art, music, poetry and thoughtfulness
(the Uruguayan thousand peso note depicts the cherished poet, Juana de Ibareouro,
on one side and her library of books on the other), Uruguayos are able to synthesize
complexity in a way that allows ideas to sprout, grow, mingle together and mature,
like a nice Uruguayan wine, a robust Tannat, perhaps. This, combined with their
independent spirit, upon which the nation of Uruguay was founded, that desire
for self-rule over which they fought the Argentines, allows Uruguayos to discern
the difference between a socialist-leaning democracy, with checks and balances
that can work to create a healthy nation for all and the corrupt caricature
of socialism that has occurred where democratic principles are usurped. The
Uruguayos, guided by their cultural elegance of thought, seem particularly qualified
to succeed in their social experiment, as the understanding that democracy is
not to be taken for granted has been a hard lesson learned, one that serves
the nation well as long as it is not forgotten.

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