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)

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)

The Uruguayan Left at the Crossroads

Notes for progressives in Latin America and the world

Daniel Chavez

The Frente Amplio (Broad Front) government of Uruguay, one of the most stable, fruitful and serene experiences of the “new Latin American left”, is going through a very dramatic electoral process with likely profound impacts in the country and in the region. Daniel Chavez appraises the results of the Uruguayan experience and suggests what might be relevant for other counter-hegemonic processes in the region and the world.

A Frente Amplio electoral rally in the city of Paysandú. The Frente Amplio is the unified political expression of the Uruguayan left, resulting from the electoral and programmatic convergence of more than 20 parties and movements.Photo credit: Daniel Chavez

Of all the governments of the so-called pink tide that transformed the social and political scene of Latin America over the last two decades, the Uruguayan case is also one of the least debated internationally and the only one that has received praise both from the progressive camp and from the main institutions of the world’s political and economic orthodoxy.1 While the media attention and left and right discussions focused on the processes led by Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina, the three periods of government by the Frente Amplio in a very peaceful Uruguay have rarely drawn the attention of activists, journalists, or political leaders in other countries of the world.

On 24 November 2019, Uruguayan citizens will elect their new President. The second round of the presidential election will occur at a very particular moment in the history of Latin America. In Chile, a popular insurrection is shaking the foundations of neoliberalism and authoritarianism. In Bolivia, after several days of violent protests following disputed election results, the police and the military forced the resignation of the president in a new kind of coup d'état. In Argentina, the right has been defeated in an election derived from a very serious economic and social crisis. In Ecuador, popular organisations negotiate with a weak government the resolution of a very complex political crisis. In Peru, the recent institutional crisis remains unresolved, with the Parliament still closed. In Colombia, within the framework of the peace agreements violated by the government and dissident fractions of the guerrillas, the results of the recent municipal elections provide some good news, while the murders of popular leaders continue. In Venezuela, the government and the opposition widen the political gap while the population suffers a terrible social and economic crisis, and the threat of a foreign intervention. In this regional context, the very peaceful and regulated Uruguayan presidential election seems almost an anomaly.

Uruguay is, in many ways, an atypical country in Latin America. In 1920, an American journalist referred to this country as “the Switzerland of Latin America”, giving rise to a comparison that became an oft repeated catchphrase, either on the country’s own merits or as an image that the governments of the day tried to portray. Beyond possible questions about the past or current relevance of this analogy, the empirical data show that Uruguay reached early levels of institutional development and welfare comparable to those of European countries. It was one of the world’s first advanced democracies – including the extension of free, mandatory and secular education at the end of the 19th century, divorce in 1917 and the granting of the right to vote to women in 1927, then suffered a serious setback during a military dictatorship (1973-1984) and two decades of resistance to neoliberalism (1980s and 1990s) and, finally, in the last 15 years it has undergone profound social, political and economic transformations made possible by the left in the government.2

Uruguay’s electoral legislation requires gaining more than half plus one of the votes to access the presidency. If no candidate obtains a majority in the first round, a run-off takes place, in which only the two most voted participate. Thus, Uruguay is now immersed in a very polarised electoral campaign that could substantially alter the political history of the country and generate relevant lessons for the left in the region and in other parts of the world. After three lustrums of progressive rule and despite having won the first round unquestionably on October 27th, the Uruguayan left faces the possibility of a defeat in the second round. If on November 24th the election confirms the results the polls predict today, the right will celebrate its return to power. The country that has historically taken pride in its civic culture, its democratic coexistence and its track record of consensus in the design and implementation of state policies, today faces a campaign without a foreseeable result, including the entry into Parliament of a brand new far right party, Cabildo Abierto (loosely translated into English as “Open Assembly”), with an electorate that could become the arbitrator of the November election.

The panorama that the Uruguayan left faces today is very problematic. The election of October 27th resulted in the loss of the parliamentary majority both in the Senate and in the Chamber of Deputies. The leftist militancy had bet, hopefully, on a last-minute comeback, as had happened in the 2014 election, but the result was more adverse. The Frente Amplio achieved 39.2 percent of the votes, the National Party 28.6, the Colorado Party 12.3 and Cabildo Abierto 10.9. The remaining votes were distributed among five minor parties – including the Partido Independiente (Independent Party) and two conservative groups that enter Parliament for the first time: the Partido Ecologista Radical Intransigente (Radical and Intransigent Environmentalist Party) and the Partido de la Gente (People’s Party), which do not alter substantially an arithmetic fact: the sum of the votes to the right bloc today is larger than the left bloc by 10 percentage points as the starting position to face the second round.

Definitely, the Frente Amplio faces an uphill battle towards the run-off election of November 24th, but there is still room for hope. Despite the historic strength of the Uruguayan party system (atypical in Latin America), it is unlikely that the voters of the opposition parties will uncritically accept the voting indications of the leaders. It is foreseeable that a significant percentage of Colorado Party voters will reject the offer of a coalition that includes Cabildo Abierto, a reactionary party led by a retired army general perceived by many Uruguayans as a pasteurised version of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. On the other hand, the sudden irruption of Cabildo Abierto into the Uruguayan political scene, having been founded this year, just eight months before the election, indicates that its electorate includes many former voters of the Frente Amplio that could be “recovered” by the left for the second round of November.

Unlike the demagogy, violence or dirty tricks that characterise elections in other countries of the region, fair play and civilized contrast of candidates and electoral programs have prevailed in Uruguayan politics in recent decades. Even so, the second round of the presidential election is seen as crucial and is becoming increasingly emotional, with heated and passionate debates on social media and a toe-to-toe battle in public spaces for each single vote. In contrast to previous elections, this year’s voting is marked by strong ideological and programmatic differences that reflect the classic but very live distinction between left and right. This election also reflects changes in the political behaviour of different social classes that can be directly related to the outcomes of progressive rule in Uruguay and in other Latin American countries.

The Frente Amplio’s long political march

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.

The strategies of the left and the right for the second electoral round

March of Silence, Montevideo, 2015. The demand for truth and justice around the fate of the desaparecidos (political activists presumably killed by the security forces) are very much alive in Uruguay more than three decades after the end of the military dictatorship of 1973-1985. Photo credit: Frente Amplio/Flickr/(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Luis Lacalle Pou, the candidate of the National Party, is today the favourite for the November run-off, although his party’s vote in October was below the 30 percent recorded in the 2009 and 2014 elections. The strategy formulated by Lacalle Pou is focused on the creation of what he defines as a “multi-coloured government”, meaning a parliamentary and governmental coalition composed of the two traditional parties (National and Colorado) and including Cabildo Abierto, the Independent Party and the People’s Party.

If victorious, Lacalle Pou would rely on a parliament with a majority of legislators willing to execute its ambitious agenda of neoliberal reforms, with adjustments in the public budget and repression of the foreseeable resistance posed by trade unions and other social movements. The parliamentary majority that would support Lacalle Pou include senators and deputies who openly vindicate the “fight against subversion” during the last military dictatorship, in addition to an enlarged evangelical bloc of legislators dispersed among the three main conservative parties.

In the first round, the electoral strategy of the Frente Amplio was focused on publicising the social and economic achievements of its governments, highlighting the marked reduction in poverty and sound economic management that has secured three decades of uninterrupted growth, unprecedented in national history. In its campaign slogans, the left proposed Uruguayan voters No perder lo bueno, hacerlo mejor (“not to lose what’s good, doing it better”), while the message of the National Party already anticipated a possible unification of the right for the run-off, winking at the whole arch of the opposition with its slogan Lo que nos une (“What unites us”).

At the time of writing, the electorate on the left seems to have assimilated the bad news of the October coup and the militancy of the Frente Amplio has enthusiastically engaged in a renewed campaign for the run-off. The strategy to win the November election tends towards building bridges towards those who did not vote for the left in the first round, trying to recover votes that might have been captured by the various opposition parties and recognising current problems in public safety and other areas on which the right focused its criticisms. The discourse of the presidential candidate Daniel Martínez (an engineer with extensive experience in public office, having served as a Senator, Minister of Industries, and Mayor of Montevideo until April of this year) and other figures of the Frente Amplio has also become more confrontational with the right, emphasising the internal contradictions between the parties that make up the opposition coalition and affirming that they could not agree on how to run a coherent and effective government.

The electoral command of the Frente Amplio has defined that the winning strategy in the few days remaining until the November 24th election will be based on a “vote by vote” mobilisation, including the widest deployment of Frente Amplio militants and tours of the presidential candidate and the entire leadership of the left throughout the neighbourhoods of Montevideo and every other city.

One of the recent moves of the left has been the distribution of a document entitled Tres cartas para un país (“Three letters to a country”). The first of the letters is addressed to left-wing voters, inviting them to be optimistic, since “it is certainly viable to win” and reminding them that the Frente Amplio remains “the country’s largest political force”. The letter argues the existence of “two models in dispute”: the one of the left, with “clear advances, a real self-critical perspective and well-founded proposals” based on 15 years of good governance, and a “neoliberal project with authoritarian roots, that anticipates budget cuts and austerity shocks and setbacks in social rights”, as well as “impunity assured for military violators of human rights”. The text also compares the proposals of the Uruguayan right with the regional situation, asserting that Chile, Brazil and Argentina constitute “clear examples of the failure of the neoliberal model and the increase in poverty and violence they generate”. The second letter is addressed to undecided voters, reminding them that Jair Bolsonaro expressed his explicit support for Lacalle Pou. The letter to the undecided also argues that the promises of “lowering taxes, cutting millions in public spending, getting rid of 50,000 state workers” while building “hundreds of new high schools and hospitals” are not credible or viable. The last letter is addressed to those who would not be willing to vote for the left, stating that “together we will find the best ways to solve problems and democratically resolve our discrepancies”.

The radicalisation of the political parties’ discourse would seem to make little sense in a country historically allergic to conflict and prone to the search for negotiated solutions (the novels of the internationally famous Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti are highly illustrative of the nation’s political culture, as they provide useful insight into the afflictions and aspirations of a very extended middle class). Furthermore, as explained above, national and international statistics confirm that in the almost 15 years of Frente Amplio governments the social gap has continued to shrink. Nevertheless, as in Brazil, Bolivia and other countries where leftist governments raised a significant portion out of poverty, part of the “new middle class” tends to rebel against the ruling party and questions the transfer of resources and social policies towards the poorest. At the same time, other voters who had previously opted for the left nowadays criticise the alleged mismanagement of the state, the deterioration of education, and a few isolated and highly visible cases of corruption (magnified by the right-wing media), while demanding greater attention from the government to public insecurity (Uruguay remains one of the safest countries in the region, but police statistics indicate a sharp increase in crime in recent years, including more homicides and violence linked to drug trafficking).

In the first phase of the 2019 electoral campaign, the polls indicated that many voters disenchanted with the left would support the candidacy of the Colorado Party, led by Ernesto Talvi, an economist trained in the United States and who paradoxically vindicates the legacy of former President José Batlle y Ordóñez (1856-1929), the main historical figure of his party and founder of the social democratic development model that characterised Uruguay for much of the last century, based on strong state intervention in the economy. Talvi tried to present himself as a “progressive liberal”, despite the fact that his academic training and professional career correspond to the classic image of the neo-liberal economist, including multiple public statements of exaltation of the model applied by the so-called Chicago Boys in Chile during and after the dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet.

As the electoral campaign progressed, the opinion polls indicated that the Colorado Party’s candidacy deflated simultaneously with the growth of Cabildo Abierto. The results of the first round confirmed a marked transfer of votes from the Colorado Party and even the Frente Amplio to the new far-right party. On the other hand, the displacement of the ruling party towards the centre did not generate positive results, despite not having suffered a loss of left votes, since the Popular Unit, the small party formed by radical left groups that had split from the Frente Amplio in the previous election, lost its only representative in Parliament in this year’s October election.

In the October 2019 election, the Frente Amplio lost a fifth of its electorate (almost 200,000 votes) compared to the first round of 2014. The reasons for such a loss are multiple and diverse. On the one hand, there are disenchanted leftists who criticise the alleged abandonment of the historical banners of the left once it accessed national office. This minority of voters that the Frente Amplio did not retain, and which would have chosen to vote for the Radical Intransigent Environmental Party, Popular Unity, the Green Animalist Party or the Workers’ Party (the last three parties did not reach the minimum votes to enter Parliament) includes those who criticise the benefits granted by the government to transnational capital, the primarisation of the economy, land grabbing by transnational agro-business, the deterioration of the environment, or the absence of a coherent industrial policy. There are also disenchanted voters in the centre of the political spectrum, who reflect the anger of the middle classes and the growing support for parties that promise less taxes, less state intervention and more or better capitalism. This group also includes critics of the position of neutrality or of alleged support by the Frente Amplio to the government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. But there is also a significant percentage of votes that the left did not retain, which are difficult to quantify, that do not vote along specific ideological positions and that reflect the unmet needs and demands of a portion of the popular sectors (the so-called “Uruguayan subproletariat”, using the concept coined by Óscar Bottinelli, a local political analyst), which in previous elections supported the fractions of the populist right of traditional parties and that in October 2019 would have voted for Cabildo Abierto.

March of Diversity (Gay Pride), Montevideo, 2015. The defence and expansion of the new generation of civil rights has been one of the priorities of the Uruguayan left in the government. Photo credit: Frente Amplio/Flickr/(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Any reader of statements issued by the opposition leaders in the weeks leading up to the first round would have expected the unification of right-wing forces for the run-off to be a much more difficult process. In particular, the questionable democratic credentials of Cabildo Abierto and the radical positions of the new far-right party towards the agenda de derechos (“rights agenda”) promoted by the Frente Amplio governments. These are new laws focused on the decriminalisation of abortion, homosexual marriage, protection of transgender people, sex education in schools, and the legalisation of marijuana consumption, production and distribution, which have divided the waters on the right. The Colorado Party candidate had publicly ruled out any alliance with the leader of Cabildo Abierto – an admirer of Bolsonaro and leader of a party with a visible presence of army officials nostalgic for the dictatorship and members of neo-fascist organisations – and declared that he was not opposed to the decriminalisation of abortion or same-sex marriage. The candidate of the National Party also gave assurances that he would not modify the rights agenda, despite the fact that his party has a strong presence of ultraconservative evangelical pastors who put pressure in the opposite direction. A few minutes after the announcement of the results of the first round, however, both the candidate of the Colorado Party and the leader of Cabildo Abierto announced their willingness to join forces for the run-off and announced that they would actively campaign for the candidate of the National Party.

Towards November and beyond...

Photo: A member of a mutual-aid housing cooperative. Uruguay has a very strong civil society, made up of trade unions, cooperatives, student unions, feminist and environmental associations, and other forms of popular organisation. Photo credit: Daniel Chavez

The social, political and economic disasters caused by the return of regressive forces to national office in neighbouring countries confirms that the much discussed distinction between the left (beyond its ideological purity or degree of radicalism) and the right is not irrelevant. It is enough to look at the legacy of the governments led by Mauricio Macri in Argentina, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil or Sebastián Piñera in Chile to anticipate the possible impacts of a right-wing coalition ruling in Uruguay, with very foreseeable cuts in both the quality of life of the majority of the population and in the possibilities of expression and mobilisation of popular organizations to resist the neoliberal offensive.7

It is clear that the final result of the presidential election will not cause a systemic change in the politics or economic of Uruguay. Very few – if any – of those who celebrated the rise of the Frente Amplio to national government almost 15 years ago (including the author of this text) expect that a victory of the left will generate new perspectives to radicalise its political project towards socialism or towards the establishment of a more participatory, more democratic or more ecological types of governance. The expectations of many leaders and voters of the Frente Amplio are limited to sustaining the process of economic growth or at least to face as well as possible the impending international crisis, which will surely be more serious than the one that exploded in 2008, as well as maintaining the purchasing power of wages and ensuring the continuity of current social policies and the quality of public services.

In the long march of the Frente Amplio through the state institutions, much of the original programme on the left has been relegated to the drawer of history. Many of those activists, who 15 years ago believed that the project of the left would be more radical today, are more aware of both the limits imposed by external conditions and the lack of will or courage on the part of the leadership of the Broad Front to face the hegemony of transnational capital or to overcome the normative tools that protect it. For example, many leaders of the left who previously opposed free trade or investment protection treaties, considering them instruments of subjugation of the countries of the South, this year applauded the signing of a trade agreement between Mercosur and the European Union with very few benefits for Uruguay or other members of the bloc.

If the right wins in the second round of November 24, we already know that the new government that will take office in March 2020 will be very different from the current incumbent. This is not an ideological or biased statement: Luis Lacalle Pou himself has announced that immediately after assuming the presidency he would send to Parliament an “emergency law” that would include hundreds of articles aimed at dismantling many of the achievements of the left in government. Its specific contents have not been announced (clearly to hide the real intentions, since a more precise enunciation would scare away undecided voters) and Lacalle Pou himself has announced that they will not be explained until after the run-off, but the antecedents of government of the conservative parties anticipate cuts in public spending and wages very similar to the structural adjustment programmes imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in the 1990s.

Nevertheless, regardless of who is the winner in the run-off of November 2019, the political project of the Uruguayan left will no longer be the same. The loss of the parliamentary majority and the emergence of an extreme right party are clear signs of both the exhaustion of the style of government developed by the Frente Amplio in Uruguay and the crisis of progresismo (“progressivism”) in Latin America and the world more broadly. The uncertainty lies in the sense of the incoming change, in consideration of the contradictory ideological lines that coexist within the Uruguayan left: while some components of the Frente Amplio propose radicalising the left project and going back to its founding ideological roots, other components propose to accentuate and accelerate the movement towards the centre. Both trends have co-existed in the Frente Amplio since its own foundation, but in any case, either in a scenario of defeat and loss of the government or in one of victory and continuity of the government, it is unlikely this tension will be resolved.

The regional and global scene of today is very different from that of 15 years ago, when the Frente Amplio first took national office. Hugo Chávez and Néstor Kirchner have died. Evo Morales has resigned, forced by the army and the police after a strong social mobilisation of the right and the far right. Rafael Correa is semi-exiled in Europe. Donald Trump continues to occupy the White House. A neo-fascist politician, Jair Bolsonaro, rules in Brazil, and one of his fans leads a new party in Uruguay. The demand for commodities that had fed the public coffers of Latin American governments has slowed down. A global economic and financial crisis more extensive and more devastating than the one that erupted in 2008 is increasingly imminent. On the international level, the Uruguayan left – in government or in opposition – will have to face a strong conservative offensive in the region and in the world. At the national level, it will have to respond to the demands of cutting public spending posed by the advocates of national and transnational capital, to the mutilation of social rights demanded by an empowered far-right in Parliament, and to the demands and mobilisations of labour, housing cooperatives, student unions and other popular organisations that will not passively accept the reversal of the conquests achieved by the popular movement in the past 15 years.

About the author

Daniel Chavez, a TNI fellow, specialises in left politics, state theory and public services. His latest books include Repensar lo Público: Estado, sociedad y servicios básicos en América Latina (Icaria, 2019; co-edited with Susan spronk and David McDonald); Venezuela - Perspectives from the South (CLACSO, 2017, co-edited with Mabel Thwaites Rey and Hernán Ouviña); and The Reinvention of the State: Public Enterprises and Development in Latin America and the World (TNI, 2016, co-edited with Sebastián Torres).

Daniel Chavez / Photo credit Patricia Alfaro

Daniel Chavez / Photo credit Patricia Alfaro

Notes

1. For an overview of the rise and expansion of the “pink tide” see Chavez, D., Barrett, P. and Rodríguez-Garavito, C. (eds) (2008) Utopia Reborn - The New Latin American Left. London: Pluto Press.

2. For an updated and succinct introduction to the country’s history and its unique characteristics in the Latin American context, see Caetano, G. (2019) Historia minima del Uruguay. Mexico City: El Colegio de México.

3. A political scientist and senator for the Frente Amplio, Constanza Moreira, has just published a detailed analysis of the path of the Uruguayan left towards national power and its trajectory in government, within the broader framework of the progressive governments of the region: Moreira, C. (2019) Tiempos de democracia plebeya - Presente y futuro del progresismo en Uruguay y América Latina. Montevideo: Banda Oriental, Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales (CLACSO) y Transnational Institute (TNI).

4. Uruguay’s record-setting economic growth streak”, The Economist, March 28th, 2018.

5. Freedom House (2019), Freedom in the World 2019: Democracy in Retreat. Washington, DC: Freedom House.

6. The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index 2018: http://www.eiu.com/topic/democracy-index

7. The five leaders of the opposition have signed a programmatic document that announces some of the policies that the right-wing coalition would implement in government. The document only collects the less “scary” proposals, and does not mention some of the most controversial ideas defended by them during the first round of the electoral campaign. The document, entitled Compromiso por el País (“Commitment for the Country”) can be downloaded from this link: http://lacallepou.uy/compromiso.pdf.