Uruguay: The End of the Dream?

Uruguay: The End of the Dream?

In the nearly fifteen years since it took power, the Uruguayan left has enjoyed broad legislative and economic success. But now its momentum may be stalling.

President of Uruguay José Mujica (left) at a May 2014 meeting of the Organization of American States. (Photo courtesy of OEA - OAS.)

During the Pink Tide, international attention often focused on the most flamboyant and controversial heads of state, with their radical rhetoric and often limited commitment to the separation of powers. Perhaps it was for that reason that Uruguay, despite a very serious project of reform and three consecutive left-wing governments led by the Frente Amplio (Broad Front), attracted less attention. When international attention did arrive, it was usually by way of contrast. The avuncular former guerrilla, in the figure of José “Pepe” Mujica, seemed an antithesis to the large egos serving as heads of state elsewhere; he lived on a modest farm and drove a 1987 blue Volkswagen Beetle while president from 2010 to 2015. He could also be counted on for expressions of democratic values. He made way for his predecessor (and successor), Tabaré Vázquez. And surveying the struggles of the left on the international scene shortly after he left office, Mujica judged: “If it is the left’s turn to lose ground, let it lose ground and learn, for it will have to begin again.” But if Uruguay seems like the most successful of the Pink Tide’s “social democratic governments,” its transformative legacy in Uruguayan history assured, its future is less certain.

The Frente Amplio took power in the elections of October 31, 2004, which produced a flood of votes for the left, giving it the presidency in the first round and a majority in both legislative chambers. This ended years of rule by the centrist Colorado (“Red”) Party, the conservative National (“White”) Party, and civic-military dictatorships, which had governed the country in sporadic alternation for 175 years. The electoral results in 2004, 2009, and 2014 permitted the Uruguayan left to achieve three consecutive governments with legislative majorities. And the left’s success coincided with vigorous economic growth. Even with the slowdown at the start of 2015, the period beginning after the crisis of 2002 marks the most significant stretch of economic growth in Uruguay since at least the 1960s.

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This strong growth was matched with a dramatic, uninterrupted reduction in poverty. Between 2004 and 2014, the rates of poverty and extreme poverty fell, respectively, from 39.9 percent to 9.7 percent and from 4.7 percent to 0.3 percent, according to Uruguay’s National Institute of Statistics. The most recent numbers continue to reflect those declines, with poverty at 7.9 percent and extreme poverty at 0.2 percent.

Under the Frente Amplio, Uruguay has also seen a more gradual but persistent decline in inequality. From 2004 to 2014, the Gini coefficient declined from 0.46 to 0.38—the lowest in Latin America. However, in spite of this decline, a disproportionate share of wealth and income remain concentrated among a small elite. Patterns of inequality also continue to play out along familiar geographic and demographic lines. Afro-Uruguayans and the young remain disproportionately represented among the poor, with the country’s black population still facing poverty rates 10 percent higher than whites despite a significant decline. These tendencies are shared by other progressive governments in South America, such as Brazil under the Workers’ Party.

As with other Pink Tide countries, the economic dynamism underlying the impressive social advances of this period resulted mainly from the boom in the price of commodities. Because of prudent economic management, Uruguay has not yet suffered a recession, as has befallen other Pink Tide countries after the fall in commodity prices. Still, other features of the economy remain little changed. Increased investment has come mostly from foreign sources, with national capital playing only a supporting role. Industrial and value-added exports did not increase significantly and remain strongly rooted in the region—in the Mercosur trade bloc and in South America more generally. There were no structural transformations in production or export infrastructure. During the most recent electoral campaign, for example, Tabaré Vázquez promised to increase investment in science and technology to 1 percent of GDP, hoping over the long term to decrease dependence on commodities and diversify the economy. Nevertheless, the amount remains stuck at 0.4 percent of GDP. The explosion of production in the agricultural sector—now challenged—underlined the severe deficits in infrastructure and the persistence of other structural problems that compromise continued economic dynamism. Unemployment, too, is creeping back up. After reaching a low of 6.3 percent in urban areas in 2010–11—the lowest level seen in Uruguay in decades—unemployment rates have been rising in recent years to approximately 8 percent, and the most recent data confirms a notable decline in hiring.

A Coalition at Its Peak?

Historically, the unification of the left under the Frente Amplio (dating back to 1971) was preceded and brought about by the unification of the unions under the Convención Nacional de Trabajadores (CNT) in 1964. Since its creation, Frente Amplio has included a movement dimension, through a territorial network of “base committees” that over the years has been incorporated into the decision-making bodies of the party. A wide network of civil society organizations—many of them linked informally to the unions—has maintained a special tie with Frente Amplio, even while keeping independence and autonomy. The union movement has sought to balance this relationship with the slogan, “independence doesn’t mean abstention.” Nevertheless, with the entry of the left into the government, these links have become tenser. As could be expected, disagreements have multiplied. The risks of a “Peronist” turn—in the sense of excessive dependence and cooperation between unions and the government—have been kept in mind always as a danger to avoid. Nevertheless, the privileged relationships between organizations of civil society and the Frente Amplio have been maintained, even as the Frente Amplio’s capacity to mobilize support has diminished somewhat in recent times.

In Uruguay, the left’s honeymoon may be coming to an end.

On balance, the fourteen years of left-wing governments in Uruguay reflect a strong record of economic growth and decreased inequality, alongside a set of other important reforms—the creation of an integrated health system; advances in labor relations; a law against gender-based violence; a range of measures furthering gender equity at home, at work, and in government; and affirmative–action policies for groups facing discrimination, including Afro-Uruguayans. In July 2017, Madrid’s El País newspaper highlighted the Frente Amplio’s successes in a front-page article titled, “The discreet miracle of the Uruguayan left: 15 years of uninterrupted economic growth.” It contrasted the country’s record of equitable growth and stable government with the crises facing its larger neighbors and the turn to the right, and even ultra-right, across Latin America. Where countries like Brazil and Argentina were failing, the article noted, “this small country [Uruguay] distinguished itself with a peaceful third way.”

Yet the honeymoon may be coming to an end. Despite its successes, the current government faces significant discontent both within and outside its ranks. Polls ahead of the upcoming elections, in late 2019, show the conservative Partido Nacional catching up with the Frente Amplio for the first time since the left took power. The situation has left both those in the government and outside observers grasping for an explanation—and the party battling to reclaim its advantage. The challenge for the left is to show that it cannot only adapt its agenda to adverse economic conditions, but expand it to address lasting structural problems. These include the need for profound education reform, for more investment in science and technology, for transforming the economic base to reduce dependence on commodities and for the creation of better jobs, for public-safety laws that are not punitive but meet public expectations for security, and for a deepening of social rights.

For now, the main “flagships” of Uruguayan progressivism appear to be stagnating, and public opinion seems to believe, accurately or not, that the second Tabaré Vázquez government lacks a vigorous agenda or the strength necessary to renew the Uruguayan left’s transformative project. The government’s transformative impulse has arguably been waning since as early as the previous term, during the presidency of José Mujica, whose charisma, combined with the continued economic growth and passage of several significant reforms, partially occluded the decline. The Vázquez government, on the other hand, has come under criticism for its growing distance from everyday citizens. With the left’s most ambitious plans realized, many feel that the Frente Amplio has reached the “end of the dream,” to borrow the title of Chilean writer Joaquín Brunner’s most recent book.

The country has also not escaped the tragedy of widespread corruption that afflicts the political and business classes in nearly all of Latin America. The case that led to the resignation of former vice president Raúl Sendic Jr. in 2017 is still working its way through the courts. And the country’s governance faces other unresolved problems, such as the financing of parties and the lack of accountability in public works. Reforms are necessary to bolster public confidence in state-owned businesses and the public sector more generally. Across South America, the impact of corruption scandals has been enormous and debilitating for the left-wing project. Uruguay traditionally has lower levels of corruption, fostering greater levels of trust in state institutions, but sustaining this trust will take aggressive anti-corruption efforts.

Recent surveys carried out by the government itself provide further reasons for concern. One poll revealed that, for the first time, social inequality and poverty were widely seen as “the fault of the poor themselves,” rather than the result of wider social structures. These conclusions suggest a dramatic shift in the Uruguayans’ public attitudes, which have historically tended toward a more solidaristic way of thinking. Surrounded by right-wing and ultra-right-wing governments, bordered by the extremist Bolsonaro government in Brazil, the challenges facing the Uruguayan left in this year’s elections are clear. The elections will either extend or interrupt the “progressive cycle.” In other countries of the region, like Brazil, conservative turns have begun in the final terms of left governments, leading to disillusionment among sectors of the left when the transformative impulse fades into a kind of undercover conservatism. Parties in power that have become excessively worried about maintaining power, or about the reprisals of opposition figures if they should reach government, have undermined their own electoral fortunes. There seems to be a risk of this dynamic playing out in Uruguay as well.

Still, a great majority of Uruguayans remain committed to the values of democracy; in the current moment, viewed alongside the global and continental trends, this is no small thing. The left in Uruguay, as elsewhere, faces the dual task of articulating theories of long-term change while also being engaged in the short-term work of helping workers and the poor to get to the end of the month. Once in government, the left cannot abandon its long-term goals, even as short-term demands accumulate. José Mujica, in his inaugural address on assuming the presidency on March 1, 2010, said, “It is not easy to navigate. Compasses are no longer sure of how to point to the cardinal directions.” But navigate it must, so that the scope of its agenda can match the needs of the moment.

Gerardo Caetano is titular professor of history at the Universidad de la República and a researcher at the Sistema Nacional de Investigadores del Uruguay (National Researchers System of Uruguay). He is president of the Superior Council of the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) and the author of dozens of books and other publications, for which he has received both national and international awards.

Translated by Patrick Iber.