Witnessing the Victory of the Left in Uruguay Print
Former SOA Watch media coordintaor Matthew Smucker wrote to us from Argentina on November 2nd with this increcible report of this weekend's Uruguayan elections:

Dear Friends,

I write to you from Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I have been for the past two months studying social movements and the country?s economic crisis. Tonight is the eve of the U.S. presidential election. I returned to Buenos Aires just a few hours ago from Montevideo, Uruguay, where I had the opportunity to witness their presidential elections yesterday; a remarkable contrast to ours. For all my critiques of electoral politics, and particularly of progressives devoting their energy into the same, I have to say that I have never seen so much hope as what I witnessed last night.

Victory of the Frente-Amplio

The socialist candidate Tabar? V?squez (known popularly by his first name), of the Encuentro Progresista?Frente Amplio (Broad Front), won 51% of the vote, making him Uruguay?s first leftist president ever. This was his third run for the presidency. Because of the left?s growing electoral appeal, Uruguay?s two established parties?the Colorados and the Blancos?had created a run-off voting system to advantage themselves. Under this system, during the last presidential race in 1999, Tabar? gained 39% of the vote, winning a plurality between the three parties, with Colorado candidate Jorge Batlle coming in second. Because none of the candidates gained over 50%, a run-off vote was held between Tabar? and Batlle. Batlle courted most of the Blanco voters for the run-off round, and won the presidency.

This time around Blanco candidate Jorge Larra?aga was hoping to win the election under the same scenario. However, at around ten o?clock last night it was announced, to deafening applause in the streets, that Tabar? secured a first-round victory.

My friend Madeline and I arrived to Montevideo from Buenos Aires on Wednesday in order to witness Sunday?s elections and the lead-up. Upon arriving we attended the closing rally of the Frente Amplio?s campaign. In Uruguay the political parties? official campaigns end days before the vote, in order to give voters time for reflection. This was just one of many aspects of Uruguay?s electoral process that struck me as more respectful to voters? intelligence than the insulting shenanigans we call electoral campaigns in the U.S. (for example, the showing of ?Stolen Honor? the day before the election).

Some 500,000 people attended the closing of the campaign. In a country of three million people, that equals one in six. It was incomparable to anything I have ever experienced. People of many ethnicities and of all generations were there, many of them with their faces painted blue, red and white ? the Frente Amplio?s colors. Thousands of different flags waved in the wind, representing the numerous groups and ideologies that comprise the united front. Che Guevara?s face was everywhere. People sang songs together like, ?O lele, o lala, si no est? la gente, ?la gente d?nde est??? (If this isn?t the people, where are the people?). It is difficult to imagine such popular enthusiasm for any candidate or political party in the United States.

One reason for the Frente Amplio?s rising popularity has to do with the failed economic policies of the current Batlle administration. The country?s economy has suffered numerous economic setbacks during this time-period, arguably because of so-called free-trade policies. Brazil?s devaluation in 1999 and Argentina?s crisis beginning in 2001 were major factors in shrinking Uruguay?s economy and raising its poverty rate over the past five years. Another reason cited for the left coalition?s recent growth is Tabar? styling himself as a Lula-type leftist, thus winning over more moderate voters. (Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, initially feared by global capitalists to be a socialist reformer, has shown himself to be quite cautious.)

The Encuentro Progresista?Frente Amplio is a broad coalition with a mostly moderately left base of Social and Christian Democrats, but which includes ex-Tupamaro guerrillas, communists, socialists and other radical groups. Such a broad coalition?s very existence is an impressive feat. In addition to winning the presidency yesterday, the Frente Amplio gained the majority of seats in both houses of congress. This gives the progressive government a great deal more power than Lula?s administration or Nestor Kirchner?s left-leaning (Peronist) administration in Argentina. The new government arguably has both the power and the mandate to begin making reforms. One significant reform was made yesterday directly by the people, when, contrary to the wishes of the International Monetary Fund, Uruguayans voted nearly two to one for a constitutional referendum which prohibits privatizing the country?s water utilities.

Street Party

To celebrate yesterday?s victories, people took the streets for the biggest party I?ve ever been to. As I walked up and down the street taking photos, many people struck up conversations with me. People were excited to talk, especially older people who have survived Uruguay?s brutal military dictatorship. When I snapped a photo of a King David (replica) statue holding the flag of the Frente Amplio, a middle-aged man ran up to me excitedly telling me that he had lodged the flag in David?s arm and asking me if I could send him the photo. After detecting my accent and inquiring about where I am from, he asked, ?Do you know what this day means? October 31st, 2004 will be remembered as one of the most important days in Uruguayan history. We have struggled for this for the past thirty years. Many people have suffered and many have died, and this is the beginning of changes.?

When I told him that I think it is important that social movements and left-leaning governments appear to be on the rise in South America, and that I hope it may be a sign of imperialism?s grip slipping, he gave me a huge hug.

All night people exchanged hugs and kisses. They danced and sang and drummed and marched and shared m?te. Restaurants were packed full of people who would occasionally burst unanimously into song, some of them jumping up onto the tables.

Today?s papers quoted voices from the new government saying that last night?s victory was one important step in the context of social movement. I hope this proves true. Time will tell how well this government will deliver, and how well it will work with and encourage grassroots social movements.

Uruguay in Context of Latin America

Yesterday Brazil, Venezuela and Chile also held (non-presidential) elections. Much to the dislike of his opponents, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez?s power was further consolidated when 18 of 23 open governor posts were filled with his allies. Chile and Brasil?s elections also bolstered the strength of their left-leaning governments. This growing shift toward the left in the make-up of South American governments, while limitted still in impact, is at the very least another indication that free-trade as an ideology is collapsing in South America under a mountain of contrary evidence.

Last month Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas Program of the Interhemispheric Resource Center, published an article in Counterpunch titled ?Ugly Heads and Blanket Condemnations: Protest and Populism in Latin America.? The article focused on warnings?by Mexican President Vicente Fox, Interamerican Development Bank President Enrique Iglesias, U.S. ambassador Tony Garza, and others?of growing populism in Latin America. The article explores the problems with the ambiguity of the term populism, which has been used in describing ex Argentina President Juan Domingo Per?n, current Peronist President Kirchner (for his insistence on prioritizing economic recovery over repayment of debt), Venezuelan President Chavez, and popular struggles against privatization in Bolivia and other Latin American countries.

Uruguay?s new government now joins this picture of a fracturing ?Washington Consensus? in the Americas. The politicians and business leaders who are warning about the dangers of populism cite problems of authoritarianism and the diminishing of individual rights, the latter being a euphemism for the subjugation of corporations to the rule of democratic institutions, as opposed to so-called free-trade policies. For the most part they are prescribing more of the same neoliberal policies in order to address the perceived threat of populism. As has been the case in past decades, the economic prescribers aren?t likely to rely on their verbal power of persuasion alone. The U.S. Southern command recently added the ambiguous term ?radical populism? to its list of national security threats, laying the rhetorical groundwork for future military meddling in the Americas.

Elections and the Role of Social Change Workers

Between the Uruguayan and the U.S. elections I feel like I?m becoming somewhat of an electoral news junkie, which I?m finding I can actually reconcile with my philosophical rejection of state power (in favor of a more horizontal organization of society). While I believe in the critical importance of building social justice movements that go beyond voting, still the reality of state power exists and different governments? particular compositions impact our world in particular ways. While I do not choose to put my organizing energy into electoral politics, I remain deeply interested in the outcomes of elections insofar as I, as a grassroots social change worker, will have to adapt to the new reality. Furthermore, I can appreciate that the Frente Amplio?s victory in Uruguay is in many ways an expression of social values over capitalist values.

Similarly I can appreciate that for many people a vote for Kerry is a rejection of policies of pre-emptive war and empire building. I can scoff at people?s hope in electoral politics as misguided and shortsighted, or I can recognize the inherent value of hope in and of itself as a starting place. As the popular educator Miles Horton said, ?Only people with hope will struggle.?

Regardless of the results of tomorrow?s U.S. presidential elections, U.S. progressives should take note of the recent changes in South America. Under Bush we saw in the Americas a failed coup in Venezuela, a successful one (for now) in Haiti, and the tightening of sanctions against Cuba. Kerry has pledged to make Latin America a bigger priority than Bush has. This should not comfort us in the least. Ronald Reagan, whom Kerry has repeatedly cited as a model for foreign policy, clearly considered Latin America a priority. (Ask any Sandinista how that felt.) Last month Argentine Foreign Affairs Secretary Rafael Bielsa candidly called it a ?blessing? that the U.S. State Department does not currently consider Argentina a priority.

Indeed, in many ways progressives in South America have finally been making measurable gains while Bush has been busy blowing all of the U.S.?s political capital on failing policies in the Middle East. It is important for progressives to realize that Bush?s mainstream unpopularity in the U.S. has much more to do with his utter deficiency as emperor than with ethical questions of whether U.S. presidents should act like emperors in the first place. For many reasons I believe it?s important that Bush lose tomorrow, and I reluctantly voted accordingly.

If Kerry wins, it will be up to us to ensure that we aren?t just replacing a sloppy-job emperor with a tidier, more sophisticated and likable one. It will be up to us to recover from the loss of momentum U.S. social movements will likely incur when huge sections of the ?anyone but Bush? camp drop off overnight. It will be up to us to pick up where we were before Bush, when U.S. social movements were finally joining movements throughout the world in challenging the values of the global economic system, corporate control, and capitalism. It will be up to us to figure out how to be allies to social justice movements in Latin America and throughout the world, and to prevent our government from interfering with the social changes that the people and progressive governments of countries such as Uruguay are trying to make.

As was heard on the streets of Montevideo last night, ??Si, se puede!?

Love and liberation,
Matthew