From Revolution To Dilution
By MIchael Fox
21 June, 2007
How one of Latin America’s
most radical progressive coalitions finally achieved their country’s
presidency, and how those at the helm are now turning their backs on
their radical base.
Jose Luis Rodriguez, 62,
awoke at the same time as usual on Sunday, Oct. 31st, 2004. But this
was no normal Sunday for Jose Luis. It was the day he had waited for
his entire adult life; the day his dream and the dreams of hundreds
of thousands of Uruguayans would be realized. The day the left would
finally come to power in his native country of Uruguay.
Frente Amplio (Broad Front-
FA) was also not your everyday leftist party. It was a coalition of
the Communist, Socialist, and Christian Democrat parties who joined
forces in 1971 with the dream of breaking the strangle-hold of the traditional
two major parties in Uruguay and carrying out a democratic revolution
which would alter Uruguayan society and redistribute the wealth that
had been in the hands of the few since independence.
Since Uruguay's independence
from Spain in 1830, its political scenario was dominated by two major
political factions: the Blancos of the National Party, who traditionally
represented the "country-side" and the Colorados of the Colorado
Party, "the city". By the 20th century, the two groups had
transformed Uruguay's political arena into a two party system that looked
remarkably similar to that of the United States.
Like the US, third parties
held little chance of actually winning elections, and none had ever
received over 12% of the vote. Most of Uruguayan society- which is known
for its die-hard allegiance -identified strongly with one or the other
of the two major parties, whose platforms where more strongly based
on tradition than political ideology, and held together by various intra-party
Uruguayans recognized that a little organization could go a long way
in the relatively small Uruguayan population, which to this day still
only amounts to 3.3 million people.
The Popular Front
The concept of the Popular
Front burst on to the global political scene in the mid 1930s when the
union between the Communist, Socialist and other radical parties in
Spain and France brought the left to power in both nations in 1936.
The 1935 VII World Comintern Congress and the 1936 III International
Congress both supported the unions and called on Communist parties to
take steps towards the organization of Popular Fronts with social sectors
and organized workers.
In Uruguay, the idea launched
a number of notable, although not necessarily successful coalition attempts
over the next three and a half decades. The successful Cuban Revolution
in 1959 added a surge of energy to Uruguay's left and in September 1966,
Uruguayan workers where finally able to unite under the National Workers
Convention (CNT), organizing the majority of the nation's workers under
The late 1960s brought increasing
political turmoil to the tiny country of Uruguay, with the weaking of
the rule of law and the erosion of civil liberties. Union demands increased
and so did action on the part of the Tupamaro urban guerrilla movement.
In 1967, the Socialist party was outlawed and In 1968 Uruguay fell in
to an economic crisis. Repression in the streets grew, causing the death
of numerous student activists. In October 7, 1970 a group of influential
Uruguayan professionals made a public declaration against the "grave
situation created by the violent and regressive policies" of the
government and calling on the nation to unite against the repression
and the "anti-popular" national government, in order "to
truly open alternatives to power."
Uruguay's progressive parties
did not take long to respond. Inspired by Salvador Allende's Popular
Unity, which brought the left to power in Chile in 1970, and building
off the experience of the worker's union five years earlier, the Communist,
Trotskyst, Socialist and Christian Democrat parties joined forces with
a half-dozen other fronts, parties and movements (including the signers
of the October 7th declaration) and founded the Frente Amplio on February
Frente's founders declared
that the union would be their strength, but refrained from dissolving
their separate party identities. Although undoubtedly with their eyes
on the prize of the Uruguayan Presidential elections, the founders foresightedly
declared that the "fundamental objective of Frente Amplio is permanent
political action and not electoral competition."
The coalition was nothing sort of revolutionary both in political plan,
and in organization. Frente founders decided to form Grassroots Committees
(Comites de Base) throughout the country to participate in the organization
of the coalition in the community. With these committees, coalition
leaders hoped to transcend beyond a mere political party into a grassroots
social movement led and organized by the community, with a direct and
open line of communication, and a voice for the communities in coalition
decisions. The Grassroots Committees would grow to be an important base
of continued support for the fledgling union.
The coalition quickly began
to mobilize for the fall Presidential elections. General Liber Seregni,
already an important military figure in Uruguayan society under the
Colorado party, and who would grow to become almost a godfather-like
figure in the Frente coalition, was selected as Frente's first Presidential
candidate. Sectors of society which had never dreamed of taking power
began to believe that they may actually have a chance. In late April,
the first caravans in support of Seregni and the newly founded coalition
began to circle the country, but Frente faced active hostility in the
Uruguay's interior. Anti-Frente propaganda portrayed the coalition as
a Communist front, and rumors whispered of an inevitable coup attempt
if Frente were to be victorious.
In late August, 1971, Frente
passed its campaign platform, entitled "The First 30 Government
Measures". The measures where fairly similar to Allende's "40
Measures", with pillars of social transformation based on agrarian
reform, the nationalization of the private banks, the nationalization
of the principle sources of foreign trade and the invigoration of the
Inspired by the possibility
of change, thousands voted for the first time in their lives, and Frente
Amplio received over three hundred thousand votes in the November 28,
1971 presidential election; An impressive showing for the newly formed
coalition, but only 18% of the national vote. Nevertheless, Frente walked
away with nearly two-dozen congressional seats and an invigorated left.
Fears from both the United
States and traditional sectors of Uruguay society about the rise of
the Uruguayan left and the success of the urban guerrilla movement,
the Tupamaros, led to growing repression against progressive forces
and Frente supporters. The threats and violence culminated, less than
two years later, in a civilian-military coup d'etat when President Juan
Maria Bordaberry dissolved Uruguay's Parliament and Regional Assemblies
on June 27, 1973. Thus began a 12-year repressive US-backed dictatorship
which would wreak economic, social and political havoc on the tiny South
The CNT and Frente Amplio
were outlawed. Liber Seregni, was detained and jailed along with many
Frente leaders. Hundreds of Uruguayans were "disappeared".
Tens of thousands were detained and tortured. Thousands more were forced
in to exile. Progressive forces went underground, and were left to carry
out their struggle against the dictatorship in the basements and shadows
of Uruguay's repressed society, or from distant shores where exiles
continued to mobilize under the banner of Frente Amplio.
More than a decade later,
as in both neighboring Argentina and Brazil, the dictatorship could
no longer be sustained. The CNT was legalized and reorganized in to
the PIT-CNT to include new union sectors. Seregni was freed on March
19, 1984 after years in prison. Frente Amplio was legalized, and in
late 1984, made an impressive showing of 21% electoral support in the
first democratic elections in more than a decade. The gains, although
marginal and not enough to achieve the Presidency, marked an impressive
victory for a Frente Amplio with still thousands of supporters abroad
and many more in jail, disappeared or dead. The growth showed rejection
to the nearly twelve years of dictatorial rule as traditional sectors
began to defect to the leftist Frente Amplio.
At home, Frente Amplio continued
to grow. Abroad, the coalition continued to be recognized as one of
the more important progressive movements in Latin America. In May 1989,
however, crisis hit when two important center-left groups split from
the coalition. The loss altered Frente's standing little on the national
scheme, but in a rather ironic shift, the added electoral choices of
the deserted factions opened Uruguay's political field for Frente candidate,
and political new-comer, Tabare Vasquez, to win Montevideo Mayor's office
the same year, with only 35.5% of the vote.
For the first time, Frente
could prove to the nation that it could govern, and with no better place
to start than Uruguay's capital, Montevideo, home to nearly half of
Uruguay's citizens. Frente began to decentralize Montevideo's politics.
It set up local offices in each of its eighteen districts and implanted
a program of community participation through neighborhood councils,
similar to the Participatory Budgeting installed during the same period
by the Popular Front government in nearby Porto Alegre, Brazil.
Frente Amplio continued to
incorporate new recruits from the traditional parties, and in 1994 the
additional coalition Encuentro Progressista (Progressive Encounter-
EP) joined Frente Amplio under that year's joint electoral ticket. Two
years later, with fears of Frente's increasing support and in a move
to block an inevitable Frente victory, the traditional parties promoted
and passed- through national referendum -a reform to the Uruguayan Constitution
which called for a run-off in the case that one party does not receive
over fifty percent of the vote. Three years later, as analysts had expected,
with nearly 40% support in the 1999 elections, Frente garnered more
votes than either of the traditional two parties, but lost in the run-off
to the National Party's Jorge Batlle.
Despite the loss, the union
of the traditional parties to block the advance of the growing leftist
coalition, marked an important transformation in Uruguay's electoral
system. Many analysts recognized that the reform was only a temporary
solution for the traditional parties to win five more years before Frente's
eventual victory. The addition of Nuevo Mayoria (New Majority- NM) which
joined the Encuentro Progressista - Frente Amplio coalition in December,
2002, boosted the group's numbers further.
Jose Luis was fully aware
of all this as Election Day 2004 approached. In 1971, while in his mid-twenties,
the formation of the coalition had inspired him to vote in his first
elections. He had supported Frente ever since, organizing through his
local Frente Grassroots Committees. He had seen his companions fall
victim to the dictatorship, which ultimately forced him in to exile
in Argentina in 1980 where he would remain for ten years. He had returned
and continued to participate in his local committee, working for the
victory they all dreamed of.
Jose Luis voted at noon on
Election Day, October 31, 2004, and returned home to await the results
with his local committee members. Many in his Canalones community made
the trek to the capital and like thousands of their fellow Frente Amplio
supporters, found their way through the congested streets of Montevideo
towards Entrevero Plaza where they would await the results, and perhaps
the acceptance speech from Frente's charismatic Presidential candidate
Tabare Vasquez. Vasquez had now risen from Mayor of Montevideo to political
stardom, and carried with him the hopes of various generations of Uruguayans.
Hours later, Montevideo was
Celebrate!" called Vasquez shortly after the results were announced,
from the second floor balcony of the Presidente Hotel, to the hoards
of Frente supporters that had unloaded in to the center of the Montevideo.
It was an uncontested victory. More than 15 points ahead of his closest
challenger, and with over 50% of the vote, Vasquez had received the
largest percentage of any Uruguayan presidential candidate since 1954,
making a run-off unnecessary. Frente additionally won a clear majority
in the House and the Senate and took over seven of Uruguay's nineteen
Hundreds of thousands of
Uruguayans danced and cheered as they saw their dream of over three
decades realized. Thirty three years after its founding, Frente had
beaten the odds, and the power of the traditional two major parties
that had ruled the tiny country for just under 175 years.
Jose Luis, who works the
midnight shift as a security guard at a local water transportation company,
arrived that evening with a smile on his face. A thirty-three year long
dream had been realized. He knew Frente's first years in power were
not going to be easy, but he was not prepared for the surprise that
Two years after Frente Amplio's
impressive electoral victory, Jose Luis Rodriguez, like most of Frente`s
progressive support, has lost his optimism.
"What's happening here
is unbelievable!" says Jose Luis, "Like something out of science-fiction...
like a type of metamorphosis."
Uruguay has dug itself in
to a protracted struggle with Argentina over the construction of the
Botnia paper mill along the Rio Plata. Uruguay and the United States
signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) in late January,
showing support by Uruguay’s Minister of Economy, Danilo Astori,
to continue the dialogue with the U.S. towards some sort of free trade
agreement. To top it off, President George W. Bush made a friendly visit
to the tiny country during his Latin American tour in March, welcomed
and hosted by President Tabare Vasquez.
While Uruguay’s social,
political and economic situation has improved in some areas over the
first two years of the Frente government with advances in human rights,
tax reform and the economy, the revolutionary moves expected by Frente`s
radical base and outlined in Frente's "First 30 Measures"
in 1971, have been no where to be seen. Uruguay’s hosting of President
Bush was a slap in the face, and thousands of Frente supporters marched
in outrage against his visit.
"Even putting aside
the principles of Frente Amplio in 1971, and a series of measures that
were slightly purged after the dictatorship, there remain a series of
measures which were still valid," says Jose Luis. "On the
economic level, the issue of the foreign debt."
Once in office, Frente Amplio
broke from its former promise not to pay the external debt. Uruguay's
Economic Minister, Astori, went even further and made large payments
in advance to the International Monetary Fund, drawing loud criticism
from Frente supporters who believed that the money should have gone
to social spending.
Everyone has their own opinion
for the cooling of Frente’s revolutionary platform. Some say Frente’s
move towards the center took place slowly over the last two decades
and was necessary in order to acquire the votes necessary to achieve
They point to Frente's charismatic
leader, Tabare Vasquez, who they say was not a Frente "militant"
(activist) during the dictatorship, but an excellent political strategist
who worked since 1989 to reach out to more centrist sectors of society
in order to bring in fresh converts to the coalition.
A quick analysis of Vasquez's
speeches during the period just before the 2004 elections, in a compilation
under the title of "The Responsible Transition," also paints
a picture of the future Frente President proposing to satisfy the needs
of the entire nation, with "asistential" benefits for marginalized
sectors of society, but without altering the status quo that might give
Uruguay's traditional sectors a reason to negatively react.
Still others criticize Economic
Minister, Danilo Astori, who while being a long-time Frente activist
and an acknowledged pillar in the Frente government, now has a centrist
economic policy treading on neo-liberal. The Economic Minister is considered
by many to be a concession to the more traditional sectors of Uruguayan
In a remarkably symbolic
move, Tabare Vasquez announced Astori's future appointment as economic
minister during his first visit to Washington only month's before the
election. Liber Seregni loudly applauded the union of the former adversaries
before the longtime Frente leader passed away exactly three months before
Frente's 2004 victory.
"The issue of power
is extremely serious," says one of the most outspoken progressive
critics of the current administration, long-time Frente lawyer and former
Frente Senator Helios Sarthou. "Companions of mine, that were together
in the struggle... are today, all silent, exercising their positions
in the conquest of power."
Astori may be considered
one of those. He now wields extensive power in the Frente government,
visible in the fact that Uruguay's more radical Foreign Relations Minister
Reinaldo Gargano was not present at the Astori-guided TIFA negotiations
in January, nor was he informed of President Bush's upcoming visit to
the country until after it was released to the press in February.
The increasing ties with
the United States, especially coming after extensive US support for
the repressive Uruguayan dictatorship during the 1970s- 1980s, make
many progressive Frente Amplistas cringe, but as always nothing is simple.
Uruguay’s tiny country is looking for a way to insert itself in
to the global market, a difficult task beneath the constant shadow of
its larger neighbors and MERCOSUR partners, Argentina and Brazil. As
a result, many Frente Amplio leaders feel they have no choice but to
With $1.8 billion in Uruguayan
exports yearly, the United States is already Uruguay's number one individual
trading partner, and second in total exports after MERCOSUR. The horizon
is promising for increasing export of Uruguayan beef, software and blueberries
to the US following Bush's visit to the country in March.
"No, there is no way
around it.," said Frente Amplio Senator Enrique Rubio in February,
when asked if there was a way to insert Uruguay into the international
market without speaking with the United States.
Many Frente leaders say it
is just realism, and point out that it is “one thing to be in
the opposition, and completely another to be in power.”
That's fine for those in
power, but such excuses don’t cut it for many in Frente Amplio’s
progressive base. In a fairly telling moment, two marches were held
simultaneously on the evening of Bush’s arrival in early March.
One, denouncing Bush’s visit. The other denouncing both Bush and
the Frente Amplio government for hosting him. Nevertheless, Frente Amplistas
(Frente activists) hold strong to their identity and coalition unity,
even if there are strong differences of opinion.
“Frente Amplio is part
political party and part social movement”, say Frente Amplistas,
who try to explain the coalition’s growth since the dictatorship
and support in the communities, which traditionally could voice their
opinion through Frente´s grassroots network.
Committees”- which are composed of any community members interested
in participating -are still functioning and organizing in the community
as they have for the past three decades, but participation has waned
and Frente supporters are finding their community voice is not heard
as loudly as before.
Meanwhile, long-time Frente
activists and coalition leaders are growing old, and having a hard time
passing responsibility to younger generations, which student organizers
consider to be another factor in the shift to the right.
"The Grassroots Committees
are not necessarily seductive to the younger generation," says
Frente Senator and former student activist, Pablo Alvarez, who is one
of the youngest representatives in Uruguay's legislature. "The
people are with the government, but they are at home, and they don't
feel attracted, convoked or motivated."
Alvarez attempted to organize
Uruguay's University students to conduct a nationwide census in order
to carry out a health and development campaign in Uruguay's poorest
communities once Frente took power. The initiative was not widely received
by the incoming Frente government.
"We had done a lot of
work to organize the students, but when we brought the project to the
corresponding person in the government... they killed it," said
Alvarez in March.
Interestingly, it appears
that Frente Amplio is not the only group in the region whose once revolutionary
leaders are now dancing to the center. In neighboring Brazil, President
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had to shake hands with varying business interests
in order to come to power in 2002, and then shake a devastating corruption
scandal in his Worker's Party (PT) to be re-elected last year. The once
revolutionary labor leader commented earlier this year that he is "too
old to be leftist."
Flavio Vivian, a coordinator
of the Small Farmer's Movement (Movimento dos Pequenos Agricultores-
MPA) in Brazil's Rio Grande do Sul, says that Brazil's workers and social
movements made the decision to leave the "confrontation-like revolution"
behind and "invest in democracy... in elections."
"Only this is a misleading,"
continues Vivian, "because when you enter into the machine... this
machine was not built for you. What [Venezuela's] Hugo Chavez did was
enter, but he broke [from the traditional politics]. The first thing
he did was change the Constitution, and others are learning from Chavez,
but Lula or the PT project in Brazil is not on that path."
This, Vivian believes, is
the major difference between Frente Amplio or Lula and Chavez or Bolivia's
Evo Morales, regardless if they all started from the same principles.
Chavez was able to break from the traditional model, while Frente Amplio
or Lula had to join with traditional forces and moderate their proposals
in order to come to power.
says Vivian, "[The PT] feared struggling their entire lives and
never achieving victory."
In Brazil, Lula's shift to
the center resulted, less than halfway through his first term, in the
splinter of Lula's radical support who quickly formed the new Socialist
and Liberty Party (PSOL). PSOL was recognized at the 2005 World Social
Forum in Porto Alegre for their radical demonstrations against government
officials and pro-government unions.
In Uruguay, an opposition
has also formed within the Frente Amplio coalition. On Saturday, April
21, Jose Luis participated in the one year anniversary of the Popular
Assemblies (Asembleas Populares), who are now organizing in Uruguay
in an attempt to push Frente Amplio back in the direction of its radical
roots, or as Jose Luis says, "propose the reorganization of Uruguay's
But the task is not easy,
with most of Uruguay's social movements riding on their heels, and afraid
to critique the two-year old government for fear of weakening its power
vis-à-vis the traditional parties.
"It is not the freest
place to be," says Senator Alvarez, "but in the current situation
in Uruguay, abandon support for the government would be catastrophic.
You are or you aren't [with the government]. To be in the middle is
Alvarez believes that the
balance for the government is positive, but Frente's radical support
isn't looking for tiny improvements. Jose Luis believes that they may
actually now be worse off, considering that there is almost no opposition
to "certain neo-liberal measures."
"The Conservative parties
have no way to criticize... because what [the Frente government] is
doing is what the previous governments wanted to do," he says.
That may be up for debate,
but there is no doubt that Frente Amplio is now a very different coalition
than was proposed by the founders in 1971, and a different coalition
than many Frente progressives had supported.
Helios Sarthou admits that
he "suffers the loss of the identity of the Foundational Frente
that we constructed." Sarthou is now one of the organizers of the
newly formed Popular Assemblies, and says that it is an unfortunate
reality, but "the left converted its activists in to voters."
His comment brings to mind
a simple yet profound metaphor uttered by a mate-sipping Uruguayan somewhere
between Uruguay's Legislative Palace and its breathtakingly fertile
"When you fill up a
glass of wine with water, it is not going to be as strong. The same
happened to Frente Amplio. As members of the traditional two parties
joined, they diluted Frente's politics and the coalition lost its revolutionary
Michael Fox is a journalist and translator in South
America. He is also a radio correspondent with Free Speech Radio News
Uruguay's Real World Radio (www.realworldradio.fm).
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