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Turning Activists Into Voters in Uruguay

Torrential rain didn’t keep voters away from the polls on Sunday, November 29th when José “Pepe” Mujica was elected president with 52% of the vote. The 74-year-old Agricultural Minister spent 14 years in jail for his participation in the Tupamaro guerilla movement, and has pledged to continue the policies of his predecessor, current left-leaning president Tabaré Vásquez. Mujica also promised that while president, he would return to his farm outside the capital city at least 5 hours a week to tend his flowers and vegetables.

“It’s the model of Lula,” Alfredo Garcé of the University of the Republic in Montevideo said of Mujica’s strategy. “To win the elections [in Brazil] he put on an Armani suit and said he wanted a government of the left but moderate to permit a political economy respectful of capitalism.” Garcé said, before the results of Sunday’s election were known, “It’s not Mujica they were voting for – he will win because of the party.”

However charismatic and popular Mujica is, he owes a lot to the Frente Amplio (Broad Front), a political party that over its nearly 40 years in existence has transformed the political and social landscape of the country, from the grassroots to the presidential palace.

The Frente Amplio’s Long Road

The Frente Amplio (FA) began as a broad coalition of leftists that pulled together the Christian Democrat, Socialist and Communist parties of the country in 1971. At the very beginning the FA founders said the “fundamental objective of Frente Amplio is permanent political action and not electoral competition.” As part of that direction, the FA began nation-wide networks of base committees to open up the political process to more people, allowing for direct democracy from below, fewer political intermediaries, and grassroots power over decisions within the FA as a movement. Two primary goals of the FA from the start were land reform and a stronger public sector. The coalition faced widespread repression under the dictatorship, which began in 1973. After surviving this period, it emerged as a political force after the dictatorship ended in 1984. The Uruguayan left and the FA’s base committees continued to grow throughout the 1980s.

The Uruguayan left was further sparked to action in a movement for justice regarding the dictatorship, an issue many people united behind in 1986 when a “law of impunity” was passed, protecting the dictatorship’s members. This human rights movement participated in a referendum to get rid of the law; 25% of voters’ signatures were needed to convoke this referendum. Uruguayan analyst Raúl Zibechi writes, “To achieve this, neighborhood activists combed the country, going house-to-house, to dialogue with neighbors and explain what the law was about and to ask for their signatures. Some 30,000 activists participated in the door-to-door campaign. They visited 80% of Uruguay’s households; spoke with over one million people; and in some cases had to return two, three and even seven times to obtain a signature.” Though the referendum failed (42% were against the law, 52% were for it) it led many activists to become more familiar with their country, their fellow citizens, and to achieve a political presence in rural areas. This development also aided in the electoral advances of the Uruguayan left.

The momentum of these years resulted in part in the election of Tabaré Vázquez as the mayor of Montevideo, the capital city, in 1989. When Vásquez took office in 1990 he established a broad network of organizations and methods to bring participation from the people into the local government. Communal councils were designed to actively monitor government operations, participate in budget-making, as well as design projects, and consider laws and policies at the grassroots level.

Another event that empowered the Uruguayan left was a referendum organized in 1992 regarding a law that would have put the national telephone company and other public-run services under private control. The referendum politicized people, spread awareness and galvanized movements and unions against the legislation. As a result, 72% of the population voted against the law.

The FA established juntas locales (local boards) as administrative and political authorities in late 1993 in each of Montevideo’s 18 districts, while the neighborhood councils were made up of 25-40 members and acted in an advisory role from the bases. Both the boards and the councils operated as an arm of the government and FA party to distribute public services, funding and deal with administrative issues. Yet typical bureaucratic and centralized power soon took over this very democratic structure, stifling and limiting participation and enthusiasm from below as the 1990s continued. Zibechi writes, “Two new structures (one political and one social) mediated the interaction between city residents and the local governments, and two parallel authorities filtered social demands, with little communication between the two. The limited power granted to the neighborhood councils, in contrast to the broad political responsibilities reserved for the local boards, discouraged social participation, as indicated by the growing rate of desertion among the councils, which in 1997 averaged 45 percent.”

Leading up to the victory of the FA in the 2004 presidential elections, the National Commission in Defense of Water and Life (CNDAV) was organized in 2003 by a broad based coalition of movements, groups and organizations to fight water privatization. The CNDAV produced hundreds of thousands of signatures in October of 2003 for the plebiscite on October 31, 2004, which took place along with the national elections. In the vote, over 62% of the people voted for a constitutional change to prohibit the privatization of water and sewage systems.

The base committees and the referendum helped lay the framework for the FA’s hegemony, support, and campaign network, which led to Vásquez’s election to the presidency. His chances for victory increased during a major economic crash in the country in 2002. Vásquez and the FA were seen as an alternative to the neoliberal plan which caused the crisis.

In the 2004 presidential campaign, the FA prioritized policies to fight marginalization and poverty, expand healthcare and education services and increase democratic participation in the development of government policies. Yet as election day neared, the FA was willing to water down its plans in order to expand its voter base. José Mujica said, before the 2004 elections, “I do not believe that we would come to power, precisely now, on the crest of a revolutionary wave. We are almost asking permission from the bourgeoisie to let ourselves in, and we have to play the role of stabilizing the government if we get there, because we are operating under the rule of law. A government of our own will have to maneuver. And furthermore, I sincerely believe that we have many things to do before socialism. And we have to send the right signals, from an electoral point of view. What do you want me to do, scare the bourgeoisie?”

The Hope of Vásquez

Vásquez was elected president in 2004. On March 1, 2005, the night Tabaré Vázquez was inaugurated President of Uruguay, a sea of people, flags and drum brigades surged through the streets of Montevideo. Fireworks pounded the air and car horns shrieked. The city bubbled with a cathartic happiness.

“Vázquez’s victory is a powerful change for Uruguay,” asserted Martin Bension, a history teacher in Montevideo. “Now the people will have more opportunities to participate in the government. Right from the foundation of the Frente Amplio, decades ago, there has been popular participation in it. The Frente makes people feel more connected, so more people become involved.”

“A lot of people died and went to jail in the seventies to win what the Frente Amplio has today,” Bension said. “Besides improvements in Uruguay, the nations of Latin America should unite – just as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is trying to do – in spite of our soccer rivalries!”

Bands played in the streets and people waved flags, pounded drums and drank the liquor stores dry to celebrate the inauguration. When the parties were over, much of this enthusiasm was channeled into the base committees of the FA.

Oscar Gandolo, a painter, had been active in his committee for five years. “The economy was going from bad to worse,” he recalled. “I had to do something… We have meetings every week where we get together and decide what we think the government needs to do, and cover issues that the government misses.” A couple of days after the presidential inauguration, the mood at a base committee in Montevideo was upbeat. The setting was typical of other party offices around Montevideo: a cluttered meeting room with books and political pamphlets stacked along tables, a picture of Che Guevara painted on the wall and campaign posters plastered everywhere. People filed into the room, joking, patting each other on the back and passing around yerba mate, a thick herbal tea popular in Uruguay and Argentina.

Eventually participants sat down and introduced themselves. They were carpenters, school teachers, plumbers, students, electricians, unemployed people and musicians. Some had been members of the party for decades, and others were showing up for the first time. They planned a cultural event with artists and musicians from Uruguay and Cuba. Then, after lengthy discussions, they elected a secretary, representative and treasurer. Security in the neighborhood and the condition of one of the main roads was the next topic of discussion.

Toward the end of the meeting, a long-standing member of the base committee spoke to the group: “For those who just arrived for the first time, we ask for your participation. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know anything about politics. You’ll learn while you’re here. With this new government in office, the responsibility of the people is greater than ever before.”

Activists and Voters of the Frente Amplio

At a dinner with businessmen at the Inter-American Development Bank, Vásquez announced that Danilo Astori would be the Minister of Economy and Finances for his government. The selection of Astori, a former leftist but at that point a proponent of neoliberalism, produced applause from the right and condemnation from the left. Astori said he would continue the economic policies of his predecessors. (Astori is now vice president-elect under Mujica.)

However, Vásquez did begin a “Social Emergency Plan” which allocated $100 million to social programs and relief for economic problems in areas such as housing, food, healthcare, and jobs. Once in the presidential palace, the FA administration decided to pay the country’s external debt in spite of campaign promises; the government even paid their IMF debt in advance – a far cry from demands from the FA base to send that money to social projects. In spite of these setbacks there have been improvements in the relationship between the government and social sectors in their discussion on policies regarding workers’ rights. The government has also set aside funds toward addressing the needs of the massive amounts of unemployed and impoverished in the country.

Under Vásquez, poverty has dropped from its 32% level in 2004, to 20%. In addition, the Ceibal Plan was developed to give a laptop with an internet connection to every primary school student in the country, and will now expand to reach secondary school students. A tax reform was also implemented which increased taxes for wealthier citizens.

However, two years into the Vásquez administration’s time in government, Argentina-based writer Marie Trigona wrote of the situation in Uruguay, “social movements have become stagnated with the crucial question of ‘what next?'”

Helios Sarthou, a former FA Senator and veteran lawyer for the FA, told journalist Mike Fox, “The issue of power is extremely serious. Companions of mine, that were together in the struggle… are today, all silent, exercising their positions in the conquest of power.” He said that the FA has shifted from its initial grassroots strategies, leading to a situation in which “the left converted its activists in to voters.”

In any case, it is thanks to those votes that Mujica will be Uruguay’s next president. Now the Frente Amplio’s long road winds on, leading to political policies Mujica himself probably wouldn’t have supported as an idealistic Tupamaro guerrilla. As he said in the days leading up to the election, “we are not waiting for paradise, above all among the older people, but trying to escape from hell and cultivate hope.”

BENJAMIN DANGL is currently based in Paraguay and is the author of “The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia” (AK Press). He edits, a website on activism and politics in Latin America, and, a progressive perspective on world events. Email: Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com.

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Benjamin Dangl has worked as a journalist throughout Latin America, covering social movements and politics in the region for over a decade. He is the author of the books Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America, and The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia. Dangl is currently a doctoral candidate in Latin American History at McGill University, and edits, a website on activism and politics in Latin America, and, a progressive perspective on world events. Twitter: Email: BenDangl(at)gmail(dot)com

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