|English | Español||January 16, 2018 | Issue #34|
A New Beginning for Uruguay
The People Take Power as the Left Wins First Election in 174 Years
By Alex Contreras Baspineiro
Tabaré Vázquez on election night.
Photo: Alex Contreras Baspineiro D.R. 2004
Those indescribable images remain, in one’s eyes, in one’s memories, and especially in one’s heart – images of hundreds of thousands of people, waving Uruguayan flags, or red flags with the image of Che Guevara, Uruguayan independence hero José Artigas, or Broad Front founder Líber Seregni, teaming with joy, excitement, and tears.
“This victory is not for us old folks, it is for our children and grandchildren, for this beautiful country that deserves a better future,” said Javier Saralengui, one among the half-million people who filled Montevideo’s Entrevero Plaza and the surrounding streets. “More than thirty years have gone by… thirty years (since the founding of the Broad Front party) to bring about this great happiness!”
It is a happiness well earned. The Broad Front was founded in 1971, a left-wing alliance unprecedented in its diversity, bringing together communists, socialists, ex-guerrillas, and even Christian Democrats. These factions managed to form a unified party supported by cultural and social groups, unions, and even sports teams. They not only fought during periods of democracy, but were victims of the 1973-1985 military dictatorship.
But they held on, and they won. In the general elections, Dr. Vázquez’s left coalition received more than fifty-one percent of the vote, a resounding victory over his neoliberal opponents.
Those who have known Uruguay for many years will remember that this small southern country was known as “the Switzerland of América” for its high standard of living, closer to that of a developed country than one of the “third world.”
Now, the situation has changed. From 137,700 unemployed people (out of a total population of 3.4 million) in 1999, when current president Jorge Batlle’s term began, the number reached 166,500 this summer. This reflects not only an alarming unemployment rate, but lowering quality of work. These official statistics are very conservative, according to Uruguayan experts; the situation is actually worse.
Joblessness and Uruguay’s deep economic recession have raised the level of poverty, especially among women and children. Around 31 percent of the people in urban areas here are considered poor. Between 1999 and 2003 the number of people below the poverty line doubled, from 408,120 to 849,100. Forty-four percent of the poor people in this country are under eighteen years old.
Both rich and poor Uruguayans seem to agree that the policies of the last thirty years – and especially in the last five years of this neoliberal administration – have seriously harmed the country.
The latest United Nations Human Development report puts Uruguay among the nineteen countries in the world that invest the least in education as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Only three countries – the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Ecuador – invest less in education. The current government claimed it would raise investment in education to 4.5 percent of GDP, but it never did.
When the current administration came to power on November 9, 1999, it promised to defend the purchasing power of salaries and pensions, to increase the education budget, decrease the tax burden, lower public fees, create jobs, start a social dialog and get rid of unemployment. The government kept none of these promises, and its neoliberal model failed.
Touring the streets of the capital Montevideo today, one encounters, amount the city’s splendor and the friendliness of its constantly tea-drinking inhabitants, people begging, sleeping in the streets, and rummaging through trash cans. This is a new phenomenon of the last few years.
Despite this difficult situation, the Uruguayan people have demonstrated, by electing the Broad Front coalition, their hopes not only to move past the crisis but to change the way their country develops.
Thousands of Uruguayans living in foreign countries returned home for the general elections, in order to vote and support this new possibility. The arrived by plane, by bus, by car, by bicycle, and some even on foot to cast their votes for the left. It was an emotional moment as Uruguayans who had left the country for a better future were reunited with friends and family still at home. Several annalists have said that the vote of these returning Uruguayans was a determining factor in the elections’ outcome.
The approximately 2.5 million voters elected 226 official, including the president, vice president, thirty senators, 99 congresspeople, and 95 electoral officials. The majority of these came from the Broad Front.
Lily Lerena de Seregni, wife of Broad Front founder Liber Seregni, declared that starting today there would not only be unity among Uruguayans, but among all Latin Americans struggling to confront their situation.
“This is a lifelong dream,” she said, “one I have had not just since the founding of the Broad Front, but all my life. Now we want a country that is truly for everybody, with liberty, harmony, and good jobs.”
Liber Seregni himself died three months ago at age 88, still yearning for victory on this historic day, dreaming of reclaiming the social equality of this country’s past and providing work and dignity to all.
Famed Uruguayan writer and journalist Eduardo Galeano, as he cast his vote, said he has many hopes that things will begin to change in his country to benefit the majority.
“For Uruguay,” he said, “this is the first time in history that the left will take power. What’s more, this election coincides with a very important referendum on the issue of water. The people will be able to be heard on a fundamental issue: the ownership of water, which is tomorrow’s petroleum.”
The question on the ballot concerned the Constitutional Water Reform, which would change the constitution to guarantee that water, as a natural resource and human right, remain a public good out of the reach of large profit-seeking corporations. Many have predicted that the wars of the 21st century will be fought over water. More than sixty-two percent of the population rejected water privatization and supported the reform.
There is no doubt that the Uruguayan people began to write a new history on October 31 – a history based on the reconstruction of their economy and social fabric deteriorated by years of bad government, the dignity of the people and above all the hope for a better future.
“Celebrate, Uruguayans, celebrate,” said future president Tabaré´Vázquez, on the day of his electoral triumph. May the celebration go on and on…
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism