Uruguay Turns to the Right

The country some consider the world’s most liberal has taken a turn to the right after a center-right candidate was declared the winner of an extremely close presidential election. For the last 15 years, Uruguay has been run by presidents from Frente Amplio (Broad Front), a collection of socialist, communist, left-wing, and Christian left wing parties. The president best known and respected throughout the world was Jose Mujica.

Uruguay has become famous for, among other things, its legalization of marijuana sales and gay marriage. It is a secular society where, unlike the case with its Rio Platense cousin Argentina, the Catholic Church has no power. On the whole, FA governments have improved the economy. Things have not gone as well under the current administration. Companies like Proctor and Gamble and Fleischmann’s Yeast have recently left the country. Under the FA poverty was dramatically reduced to 8.1%, but people have become concerned over crime, economic stagnation, and the corruption of a vice president who had to resign. The vice president, Raúl Sendic, had puffed up his resume and misused a credit card tied to the state petroleum company, as I recall. I once explained to an FA supporter that I was very critical of Sendic because I felt that, given the propaganda generally coming from conservative sources, a leftist has to hold to a higher standard. The FA supporter almost became indignant stating that what Sendic did was nothing compared to what the other side does.

In the October election the FA candidate, Daniels Martinez, received more votes than any other candidate, but not a majority. Most of the other votes in the October election went to Luis Lacalle Pou of The National Party (the Blancos), who came in second, and Ernesto Talvi of the Colorado Party, who came in third. Other parties received smaller percentages of the vote with a new far-right party, Cabildo Abierto, receiving a surprising 11%. (I’ve seen “Cabildo Abierto” translated as “Open Forum.” My vote is for “Open Council.”)

Lacalle Pou had attacked the present FA administration led by president Tabaré Vasquez, pointing out that unemployment has risen to 9.2% and more than 50,000 jobs have been lost in recent years. Some have been critical of Uruguay’s consistent support for Cuba and Venezuela. In September Uruguay left the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (TIAR) because the organization had agreed to impose sanctions against persons and organizations linked to the president of Venezuela. Before it left the organization Uruguay was the only country to vote against the sanctions.

Lacalle Pou seeks to impose an austerity plan. He wants to lay off thousands of government workers. My prediction is that this will counter FA’s reduction of poverty in the country with a resulting increase in crime. This leads to what I call “the conservative’s dilemma.” Conservatives do not want to spend money on social programs, but the result can be increased in poverty and crime. When crime goes up conservatives have no problem in spending a lot of money on police and prisons. (I exclude from the dilemma clear-thinking conservatives such as you find among some of the American paleo-conservatives. I also have a “liberal’s dilemma,” but that is beyond the scope of this short report.)

Cabildo Abierto’s goals were to reduce public spending and deal with public security. Included was the goal to reduce the size of Parliament. The party wanted a war on drugs that would reduce the crime problem in only a few months. The party program mentioned the possibility of building more jails including one with greater maximum security areas to house dangerous criminals. This jail would be under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Defense. The party also wanted to abrogate the law allowing the sale of marijuana. CA’s presidential candidate, Guido Manini Rios, also wanted to create a “parallel army” consisting of retired military and police officers and young people who have dropped out of school. This parallel army would patrol the streets as volunteers. And the party wanted to put restrictions on the right of workers to strike.

The presidential runoff was held on November 24th, but the race was so tight that it was not settled until November 28th when Martinez conceded. While the vote count had not been finalized the outcome was clear. The election was closer than that predicted by the polls. Lacalle Pou took approximately 48.71 percent of the vote and Martinez took approximately 47.51 percent. The polling had Martinez with a slight edge in Montevideo with Lacalle Pou leading in the interior. Historically the Blancos have been closely tied to the rural areas of Uruguay. Some believe the election was so close because of moderates who became concerned that rhetoric coming from the far right was reminiscent of that of the dictatorship which ruled from 1973 to 1985. This takes us back to Cabildo Abierto.

To me, the biggest surprise in the Uruguayan elections is the 11% CA got in the October election. With my somewhat stereotypical view of Uruguay I would have predicted that Calbildo Abierto would have come in at 1%.

Manini Rios recently left his position as the head of the Uruguayan military to become involved in politics. One controversy that arose in the campaign was a photo of Manini Rios with a few people, one of whom was a young man wearing a shirt with Nazi symbolism.

Manini Rios is even now an influential figure. After the October election, Lacalle Pou created a “multicolor” coalition uniting the National Party, the Colorado Party, CA, and other parties. It was this unity that was able to get more votes for Lacalle Pou than Martinez. One of the things the multicolor coalition agreed to was putting soldiers on the street to check people’s Ids. This is part of the effort to combat crime. It appears that CA will get the cabinet positions of Minister of Public Health and Minister of Housing and Environment.

One thing that irritates Lacalle Pou is that the state does not extend to certain parts of the country. I take this to refer to the fact that the police do not regularly patrol certain parts of Montevideo. I’ve read that to enter certain parts of the city the police use armored vehicles. I’ve been told that while the police will enter barrio Marconi in an emergency, they will not regularly patrol it because if they do, they’ll be shot at by drug traffickers. It’s the drug traffickers that prevent the extension of the state into all parts of Montevideo.

It will be interesting to see where the soldiers will be checking people’s identification. If it’s barrio Marconi that’s one thing. But if this occurs in the barrios of Centro, or Ciudad Vieja, or Pocitos, the tourists are not going to like it. Uruguay has drawn “political tourists;” leftists who find the country interesting, especially given the Mujica tradition. I’ve seen political American tourists and Brazilian Mujica fans in Montevideo. Soldiers checking Ids in the streets of Montevideo will not comport with the image Uruguay has had since Mujica. Of course, most Montevideans regardless of barrio will not want to be stopped by soldiers.

I return to the claim that some believe the election tightened because of the far-right rhetoric surfacing right before the runoff. Even before the appearance of this rhetoric some of the moderates in the Colorado Party had moved to support FA out of fear of right-wing elements in the mulitcolor coalition. But right before the runoff things got very bad. CA expelled one of its members for posting on social media a call for volunteers for a death squad. As I understand it, the death squad was to be used to rid society of undesirable elements. Manini Rios appeared in a controversial video urging soldiers to vote against FA. After Manini Rios’ video, there was a disturbing editorial in Nation Magazine, which is edited by retired military personnel. While the magazine is not an official military publication it was mailed from the military headquarters. Nation Magazine is an official publication of an armed forces credit union. The editorial said that Marxism must begin to be removed from “the horizon of our national destiny.” It attacked FA and called for the elimination of the right to strike.

Lacalle Pou will be installed as president on March 1, 2010. It will be an interesting next five years for the country ranked by an entity associated with The Economist as the 15th most democratic in the world with a classification of “full democracy.” By contrast, the United States is ranked 25th with a classification of “flawed democracy.”