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Uruguay: the left is watching you

In his first 100 days, Uruguay's President has devoted most of his time tiding up the mess left behind by 175 years of governments of the right and centre-right. His priorities have been a comprehensive emergency plan to alleviate extreme poverty and the search of bodies of the "disappeared" during the dirty war of the 1970s. Nevertheless, a part of the left has been left wondering about his policies on abortion, laicism and water services nationalisation

July 1, 2005
4 min read

On Friday 3 June 2005 members of the Relatives of Disappeared Detainees association entered the garrison of the 13th Battalion of the Army, which is likely to have been used as a clandestine cemetery during the military dictatorship (1973-85). The group boarded a special bus at the Presidential Palace and entered the premises along with the Secretary of the Presidency. It was President Tabaré Vázquez himself who invited the relatives of disappeared people to watch a team of Argentinean anthropologists look for the remains of people who most likely died after being tortured and were then buried in the park surrounding the garrison.

Vázquez has been clear since the old days: his left-wing government would concentrate on fighting poverty (over 57 per cent of children in the country live under the poverty line) and giving an answer to the relatives of those disappeared nearly 30 years ago. And he is standing by his word.

The new government’s first measure when it took office on 1 March 2005 was the creation of a new ministry aimed at Social Development. It will implement the Emergency Plan called Panes (bread) to give every family a small allowance (about 50 dollars), full health coverage and an array of social services.

The government decided to install collective bargaining committees for every branch of activity and increased the national minimum wage, as well as giving peasant workers and policemen the right to unionise. The number of unions taking part of the central PIT-CNT has soared.

So, is there anything wrong with this Frente Amplio (Broad Front) government? Sure there is, say older leftists. To begin with, a few days after Pope John Paul II’s death, the president decided to place a monument in his honour in a main crossing in Montevideo, overruling both Parliament and the local authority of the capital city. In a deeply secular country like Uruguay, church and state have been separated since the end of the 19th century, and this was a blow to many. Vázquez went to visit the Catholic archbishop Nicolás Cotugno, a well known conservative who two years ago advised that homosexuals should be locked up until they were cured of their contagious disease, to tell him about the decision.

When Vázquez left the meeting, he was asked about his position on the abortion bill that the Frente Amplio proposed a year and a half ago. Stoking up the situation further, Vázquez answered that he would veto it. The bill was approved in the lower chamber but rejected at the Senate by three votes (two former guerrilla commanders and current senators, members of the Frente Amplio, did not vote for it). With the majority the left has now, social movements and pro-rights campaigners were confident that the bill would be passed in parliament. The split with the MPs was apparent in the press, when two senators of the Frente Amplio, Mónica Xavier and Margarita Percovich, announced that the bill would be presented to the new parliament whatever the President thought.

Other areas of concern for some are the signature of an investment agreement with the US and the permission given to two European companies to open cellulose plants on the coast of the Uruguay river. The latter was criticised by environmentalists on safety grounds and the attitude towards a referendum on nationalisation of all water services in the country. Vázquez’s government decided to gain control of 99.79 per cent of water connections and leave the remaining 0.29 per cent under control of a subsidiary of the French Lyonnaise des Eaux until the end of the contract with that company, in 2018. This was considered as a violation of the constitution by the right and a betrayal by some small sectors of the left.

But despite these small rumblings of discontent, Vázquez enjoys robust popular support, even greater than the 51 per cent who voted for him. At the moment the economy is performing well and a vast majority of the people feel their moment has arrived. Will the Uruguayan left be an island or an example for Latin America?

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