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Cambio a la Uruguaya: Another Domino Falls

Cambio a la Uruguaya: Another Domino Falls in the Wrong Direction for Washington

• Leftist candidate Tabaré Vázquez will likely secure an absolute majority in the first round of Uruguay’s presidential elections, continuing the trend of left-leaning presidents elected in Latin American countries struggling under the effects of Washington-prescribed neo-liberal economic policies.

• Vázquez has pledged to fight poverty and unemployment while pursuing a gradualist, consensual approach to change.

• Commitment to responsible economic and fiscal policies and stronger ties with Uruguay’s like-minded Mercosur neighbors are a cornerstone of Vázquez’s electoral platform and represent a further deterioration of Washington’s influence in the region.

While a few votes remain to be counted from Uruguay’s October 31 presidential elections, Tabaré Vázquez of the leftist Progressive Encounter-Broad Front (EP-FA) coalition will likely secure an absolute majority of all votes cast in the first round, thus becoming Uruguay’s first left-wing president ever. Moreover, for the first time in almost seventy years, the president’s party won a majority in the legislature as well. The EP-FA will control 53 of the 99 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, and at least 17 of 31 Senate seats (two seats remained undecided at the time of this writing). The National Party (Blancos) also increased their representation in the legislature, coming in a strong second with 34 seats in the Chamber and at least 7 seats in the Senate. The Colorados, on the other hand, saw their share of the legislative vote drop precipitously, losing 23 seats in the Chamber and retaining only 3 of their previous 10 Senate seats.

Latin America’s Move to the Left Continues in Uruguay
Why did more than half of all Uruguayan voters support Vázquez, and what will this mean for Uruguay and, for that matter, the U.S.? On the one hand, Uruguayans were ready for change. Although the economy has begun to recover, the benefits of this recovery have not trickled down to broad sectors of the population. For a country that prides itself on its historically strong middle class, the dramatic expansion of the number of Uruguayans living in poverty has been deeply troubling. Indeed, the doubling of poverty levels since 1999 is undoubtedly the main reason for the ruling Colorados’ terrible electoral showing. It also helps explain the popularity of Vázquez’s pledge to fight poverty through a $100 million emergency fund to cover basic food, health and educational needs for the poorest Uruguayans. Unlike the two traditional parties, the Left was uniquely able to capitalize on the population’s underlying passion for change and made this a cornerstone of its electoral campaign.

Change, Urugayan Style
On the other hand, the Left recognized Uruguayans’ basic desire for “change Uruguayan style” (cambio a la Uruguaya) – in other words, a gradualist, consensual approach to change. At the same time that the Left called for change, it also worked to reassure voters that a Leftist government would not signify a radical break with the past. In interviews and speeches, Vázquez strove to counter accusations from conservative opponents that a victory for the Left would endanger Uruguayan democracy and destabilize the country. Vázquez referred frequently to Brazil’s experience, suggesting that his government would be progressive yet pragmatic, as is that of Brazilian President Lula Ignacio da Silva.

Vázquez also reassured voters that he would not default on Uruguay’s foreign debt or break Uruguay’s international obligations and demonstrated his commitment to responsible economic policies by naming Danilo Astori, a highly regarded centrist, as his choice for Economics Minister. Astori has promised to engage in “rigorous” fiscal behavior and to go along with IMF recommendations to raise the primary surplus. More generally, the individuals whom Vázquez has suggested for likely cabinet posts reflect either a non-ideological approach or a social democratic tendency. While Vázquez will also include a couple of prominent members of the more left-wing Movimiento de Participación Popular, he has gone to great lengths to emphasize that the group, whose lineage goes back to the Tupamaro guerrillas, has completely embraced democracy. Vázquez may well draw upon the MPP’s popularity with labor groups to negotiate a social and economic pact with unions designed to stimulate growth and create jobs.
Vázquez is therefore unlikely to pursue an agenda that Uruguayans will consider radical. His opposition to neo-liberal reforms, such as privatization, corresponds with the tendency of most Uruguayans, who demonstrated their overwhelming support in a referendum that gave the state (rather than for-profit private enterprises) responsibility for sanitation and water services. Regarding human rights, Vázquez has pledged to investigate disappearances during the epoch of the country’s harsh military regime but also to abide by existing legislation that prevents prosecution in such cases.

Concerning relations with Washington, Vázquez will abandon the “privileged” ties that the current administration has sought with the United States and instead forge closer links with like-minded governments in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Venezuela. Rather than negotiating a bilateral trade agreement with the United States in the context of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, Vázquez will work through the framework of Mercosur and try to drive a better bargain by playing off the European Union and the United States against each other. All in all, Vázquez promises to aspire toward ideal reforms but keep his feet firmly planted in reality – in his own words, “los ojos en la utopia, los pies en la realidad.”

This analysis was prepared by Rebecca Evans, Ph.D, COHA Senior Research Fellow.

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