Daniel Martínez, the Frente Amplio’s presidential candidate for the Uruguayan election of 2019. Photo credit: Frente Amplio/Flickr/(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Unlike the recent progressive governments of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador or Venezuela, the Uruguayan experience has been less dependent on individual leadership and reflects a long process of political accumulation that began in March 1971 with the creation of the Frente Amplio.3
Uruguay has one of the world’s oldest and strongest party systems. For a century and a half, Uruguayan politics was hegemonised by the so-called “traditional parties”: the National or White Party and the Colorado Party. These parties emerged simultaneously to the creation of the country as an independent entity in the 1830s. The references to the colours white and colorado (red) in their names allude to the currencies used by its members in the civil wars of the nineteenth century. Historically, the two parties have integrated a wide internal diversity of ideological currents, but in recent decades both formations have tended to converge in a conservative arc that oscillates between the centre and the right.
The unification of the left in 1971 questioned the hegemony of traditional parties. Conceived as the space for the convergence of various left or progressive parties and movements with a common democratic, popular, anti-oligarchic and anti-imperialist profile, the founding of the Frente Amplio was the culmination of a long process of amalgamation. The unification of the left had been preceded in the ‘60s by the formation of a unified trade union centre and other spaces of confluence of popular struggles, in a framework of acute social and political conflict that would lead to a military dictatorship backed by the United States and the regional and global right between 1973 and 1984. With the restoration of liberal democracy in 1985, the Frente Amplio reaffirmed its identity as the common space for virtually all ideological families of the heterogeneous Uruguayan left, composed of socialists, social democrats, communists, former guerrillas, trade unionists, progressive intellectuals and social militants with very diverse doctrinal or party roots. From its foundation in 1971 to the present, the Frente Amplio constitutes one of the most successful and longest experiences of convergence of the left, almost unique worldwide. Despite being formally a coalition – constituted by more than 20 parties and movements – in practice it operates as an integrated party, with a common programme and candidates for the presidential elections.
The Frente Amplio’s first national government began in March 2005. The administration led by Tabaré Vázquez (who had been Mayor of Montevideo during the first governmental experience of the left, between 1990 and 1994) had to face the sequels of the deep economic crisis of 2002. Unlike the other left governments of the region, the first period of the Frente Amplio in national office was much more predictable and moderate in its ambitions, focused on the implementation of social policies to combat poverty and the attraction of foreign investment to boost economic growth. The arrival of new investments, in parallel to the increase in exports of primary products facilitated by the international commodities bonanza, allowed the deployment of social assistance programmes to the most vulnerable sectors and the improvement of the income and consumption levels of the majority of the population.
One of the most symbolic elements of the first government of the Frente Amplio was the installation, on the banks of the Uruguayan River, of a cellulose production plant run by the transnational corporation Botnia (currently UPM, controlled by Finnish capitals), which consolidated the expansion of the industry forestry that had begun in the previous decade and generated strong reactions from environmental organisations in Uruguay and Argentina. The installation of two other pulp mills (one already under way and one in process), the government’s support for a large mining project (later cancelled due to the fall of the price of iron and other minerals in the international market) and the increase of soybean plantations and other monocultures, indicate that the Frente Amplio has adopted the same extractivist development model applied in the other countries of the region regardless of the ideological profile of their governments.
Both in its economic and social orientation and in its mode of relationship with the opposition, the first government of the Frente Amplio (and the two successive ones) had more characteristics in common with the European social democratic left than with the eclectic and charismatic leadership style of other progressive governments of the region. Even though Tabaré Vázquez exercised his quota of personal leadership and made use of the power granted by the Uruguayan presidential system, his political roots imposed limits on him. This was evident in the withdrawal of his proposals to sign a free trade agreement with the United States (which would also have meant the breakdown of Mercosur, the customs union formed by Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay) and Uruguay’s integration into the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA), in consideration of the opposition from the trade union movement and the resistance generated within his own Frente Amplio.
The Frente Amplio’s second period in government began with the irrefutable victory of José Pepe Mujica in the presidential elections of October and November 2009. In the second round, the former Tupamaro guerrilla achieved an advantage of almost 10 percentage points (52.4 percent against 43.5 percent) against the candidate of the National Party, Luis Alberto Lacalle, who had already been President in the previous decade. Immediately after his victory, Mujica proposed to agree with the opposition long-term state policies in the areas of education, public safety, environment and energy.
The third presidential victory of the Frente Amplio took place in November 2014. Tabaré Vázquez was once again elected President after obtaining 47.8 percent of the votes in the first round, in October, securing the parliamentary majority. He reaffirmed his triumph in the run-off of November with a 53.6 percent win against the candidate of the National Party, Luis Lacalle Pou (a lawyer with patrician family roots, the son of Luis Alberto Lacalle, the candidate defeated by the Frente Amplio in the previous election). The left achieved the biggest electoral victory since Uruguay introduced the current two-rounds voting system in 1996.
The Uruguayan economy, like that of other Latin American countries, benefited from the growing demand for food and other commodities from China and other emerging markets, so that for a long period the government of the Frente Amplio was able to take advantage of favourable international winds and resist the worst impacts of the global crisis that exploded in 2008. The first government of the Frente Amplio had started immediately after the very serious regional crisis of 2002, when the country suffered the contagion of the Argentine debacle. The Uruguayan recovery during the first two governments of the Frente Amplio produced a significant increase in consumption and the improvement of the main economic and social indicators. Uruguay also received new foreign investments. Even publications as far from the left as The Economist or the Financial Times praised the legal security, the institutional quality and the macroeconomic stability of the country with the Frente Amplio in government. In March 2018, The Economist argued that the governments of the left “stuck with the orthodox economic policies they inherited and with practices that make the country attractive to investors, such as keeping taxes low and the judiciary independent of political influence”.4
A quick review of some basic indicators shows that the Uruguayan economy and society have effectively improved with the left in government, enabling the country to exhibit today a noticeably higher level of per capita income and lower levels of poverty and inequality. The gross domestic product has been growing above 3 percent per year for more than a decade. Under the left’s rule, poverty was also significantly reduced, falling from 40 percent of the population in the first year of the Frente Amplio in government to less than 10 percent today. Indigence or extreme poverty affects today less than 1 percent of the population. Uruguay has also positioned itself as the country with the lowest inequality in Latin America: while the region’s Gini index is 0.467 in Uruguay it is 0.397.
The capital city seen from the World Trade Center of Montevideo. During the three Frente Amplio governments, Uruguay has reached very high levels of social and economic development. Photo credit: Jimmy Baikovicius/Flickr/(CC BY-SA 2.0)
Other achievements of the Frente Amplio in government include having positioned Uruguay as the Latin American country with the greatest coverage of social security and the best employment conditions. While the average real salary in the region increased 20 percent between 2005 and 2015, in Uruguay the rise exceeded 54 percent.
In terms of infrastructure, Uruguay also displays obvious improvements. Uruguay today occupies first place in Latin America for speed, price and coverage of broadband Internet, resulting from the extension of the fibre optic network to every corner of the country. This was carried out by the state-owned telecommunications company Antel – the same company that holds the largest market share in mobile telephony, despite having to compete with two large transnational corporations. Uruguay also occupies first place in the world in the transition to renewable energies, having changed its electricity mix with rapid (beginning in 2008, with the left in government) and massive investments in wind power, currently providing almost half the electricity consumed in the country. The energy transition has also increased the country’s sovereignty by reducing the costs of power generation and reducing imports of fossil fuels.
In the social arena, the Frente Amplio governments implemented a structural reform focused on the creation of the National Integrated Health System (SNIS), which guarantees coverage and universal access to the entire population. One of the most visible results of this reform has been the sharp drop in the rate of infant mortality between 2004 and 2018, with a reduction of more than 50 percent, from 13.2 to 6.5 per 1,000 live births. In the educational field, Uruguay was world news a decade ago with the launch of the Ceibal Plan, being the first country to give a free computer or tablet to all students and teachers of primary and secondary schools – and then also to lower income pensioners – reducing the digital divide and promoting positive externalities in science and technology. The budget for education was also expanded, rising from 3.2 percent of the gross domestic product in 2004 to 4.8 in 2013, in addition to improving the real salary of teachers and expanding the scholarships for low-income university students.
The Frente Amplio’s governments also managed to consolidate Uruguay’s position as the most stable and advanced democracy in the region, as well as the country in which the most new generation rights have been recognised. The most recent annual report issued by the Freedom House places Uruguay in first place in Latin America and sixth in the world in terms of political rights and civil liberties5, while The Economist Democracy Index highlights that Uruguay is the only country in the region included in the select group of the 20 “full democracies”.6 At the national level, the Frente Amplio has also been the only party that, on acceding to national office, has responded to the long-postponed demands for truth and justice around human rights violations during the military dictatorship, including the search for the remains of desaparecidos in army barracks.
Nevertheless, despite the good or very good economic, political and social indicators that the Frente Amplio can showcase as achievements of its governments, there are still reasons for discontent. In the last three years the pace of economic growth has stagnated and the fiscal deficit has increased, raising doubts about the continuity or expansion of social policies. For example, despite the greater investment of financial resources in public education, the construction of new schools and the expansion of educational coverage at all levels, some results in this field are still bad or very bad. Only 40 percent of students complete secondary education, well below what would be expected in a country with the level of social and economic development that Uruguay exhibits in other areas. It is very unlikely that if the right reconquers the government it will perform better than the left in this area, but all right-wing candidates have used the bad results in the field of education as electoral ammunition to attack the left.
The social gap has narrowed significantly during the 15 years of the Frente Amplio in office, but socio-spatial segregation remains visible in the country. The housing conditions of the most vulnerable population have improved. The number of so-called cantegriles (the term equivalent to favelas in Brazil) has been visibly reduced, but hundreds of families have not yet benefited from the programmes of eradication of informal settlements and other governmental housing policies. Urban informality in peripheral neighbourhoods has been reduced, but the map of Montevideo and other cities still shows “red zones” in which crime and violence rates have worsened. Drug addiction and drug trafficking ravage the inhabitants of some low-income neighbourhoods. Here, evangelical churches proliferate and in this year’s election campaign the electoral posters proliferate of Cabildo Abierto and other candidates who promise an iron fist approach to crime.
In this context, on the same day of the first presidential round, the citizenry was called to decide on a constitutional reform that would have enabled substantial changes in public safety. Making use of a legal mechanism that facilitates the organisation of citizen-enabled legislative initiatives, a right-wing fraction of the National Party had gathered signatures throughout 2019 to enable a vote on the Vivir sin miedo (“Live Without Fear”) proposal. The proposed constitutional reform included a series of modifications to the current legislation, including the authorisation of night raids by the police and the creation of a National Guard as a special crime fighting branch of the military, in addition to life sentences without parole and increased prison terms for violent crimes. The initiative did not have the explicit support of any of the presidential candidates. It did, however, obtain 1.1 million votes, equivalent to 46 percent of the electorate although this was insufficient to be passed into law (more than 50 percent was required).
Despite the defeat of the reform at the polls, the candidate of the National Party announced his intention to include two of the proposals in the immediate legislative package to be implemented by his potential government: the life sentences for very serious crimes and the strengthening of the Republican Guard, the existing paramilitary regiment of the Uruguayan police. Paradoxically (or not so much), the candidate of the left also pledged a few days later to strengthen the Republican Guard.