With electoral campaigning ahead of the October 2009 elections kicking into high gear, the two presidential frontrunners for the “broad front” coalition—a former professor and the ex-Minister of Economy, Danilo Astori, and the ex-Minister of Agriculture and one-time guerrilla, José “el Pepe” Mujica—are living reminders of the road the Uruguayan left has traveled and the unique path on which it hopes to continue governing.
Job Opening: 2009 Frente Amplio presidential candidate
In Uruguay, as in most of Latin America, the 1960s were turbulent years of economic crisis and social unrest. Out of turbulence, however, grew ideas and strategies previously unknown here—some discredited as a new decade began, some simply forgotten with the passing of time. And still others, the 1971 formation of a leftist political coalition, Frente Amplio, among them, were stunted by over a decade of dictatorship but recuperated thereafter.
Now, with electoral campaigning ahead of the October 2009 elections kicking into high gear, the two presidential frontrunners for the “broad front” coalition—a former professor and the ex-Minister of Economy, Danilo Astori, and the ex-Minister of Agriculture and one-time guerrilla, José “el Pepe” Mujica—are living reminders of the road the Uruguayan left has traveled and the unique path on which it hopes to continue governing.
While the order of the Frente Amplio presidential ticket remains undetermined, the events of recent weeks indicate a likely formula of Astori and Mujica together come October. The names of potential third candidate alternatives, such as the much younger Minister of Industry Daniel Martinez, have also been floated by some party activists. And, on Monday, a popular campaign supporting the re-election of the country’s very popular out-going president, Tabaré Vázquez, was launched. Activists supporting the movement hope to collect the 250,000 signatures needed to add the proposal of a constitutional amendment, allowing immediate reelection, to the October voting ballot.
Vázquez, however, has denied his interest in seeking another five-year term up to this point.
For now that leaves Astori and Mujica as the principal points of reference for a party sure to face a competitive race against the Partido Nacional, currently the more dominant of Uruguay’s two traditional parties. Participating in their first event together on Saturday in the small interior town of Rosario, the professorial Astori and his more charismatic counterpart, Mujica, announced they were “more united than ever,” with the former Minister of Agriculture confirming that it is likely the two will “join together to form a presidential ticket.”
The success the coalition finds in joining the technical expertise of the former Economy Minister with the political popularity of “el Pepe” could mark an interesting executive experiment in a region frequently characterized as oscillating between two lefts: one pragmatic and the other based upon personalities. Vázquez, Frente Amplio’s party leader for well-over a decade, has managed to walk the fine line between both poles during his four years as president. But now, facing the challenges of incumbency, some frenteamplistas fear the lack of a strong leader could damage the diverse coalition’s unity and thus its prospects for reelection.
Distinct Pasts Lead to the Same Present
While few would deny Astori or Mujica’s credentials as bona fide frenteamplistas, at first glance the two could hardly be more distinct. During his Saturday night oratory, Mujica joked that many have referred to the duo as “oil and water.” But, according to Mujica there are “many more chapters” that the two have in common.
Nevertheless, the writing of these chapters, while beginning in the same decade, occurred in very different locations.
In 1963, Danilo Astori was in the process of finishing his undergraduate studies in economics at the national university in Montevideo when he was recruited onto a project which, for the first time in national history, conducted a profound study of Uruguay’s economic reality and offered policy recommendations for a country in dire economic straits. With other young economists, engineers, sociologists, and agronomists, Astori and what some have called Uruguay’s first generation of técnicos dedicated themselves to the Commission for Investment and Economic Development (CIDE). Over the course of one decade, the CIDE attempted to put into practice new development ideas, primarily originating in the Santiago-based Economic Commission for Latin America (CEPAL). Astori, specifically, worked under one of Uruguay’s most beloved political figures, Wilson Ferreira Aldunate, investigating how to restructure the engine of the Uruguayan economy: its under-producing agricultural sector. While the agrarian reform that Ferreira Aldunate championed stalled within the increasingly inept political institutions of the late 1960s, Astori still reflects fondly upon the years of his formation.
“The CIDE experience contributed precisely, for the first time in the history of the country, to the need to support and base political decisions in serious professional studies.”
But careful to differentiate the technical economic studies of the CIDE from the “technocracy” that many would associate with neoliberal experiments around the region in the years that would follow, Astori adds, “the Commission never proposed a technocratic focus but rather a political focus based on important professional work.”1
For others of the same generation, growing social injustice in Uruguay, an unresponsive political system, and no doubt the inspiration of revolutionary movements around the continent led to the creation of armed guerrilla movements.
Pepe Mujica would join one such group, the MLN-Tupamaros, in the late 1960s. While controversial internal security measures allowed the military and paramilitary groups to destroy the operational capacity of the Tupamaros—doing so by 1972—Mujica, along with other Tupamaros leaders, were held clandestinely around the country for the 14 years that followed. With the return of democracy in the mid 1980s, the Tupamaros pledged to incorporate themselves into the democratic political system of the country, eventually joining the Frente Amplio coalition in 1989. Today, the Movimiento de Participación Popular (MPP) to which Mujica belongs is the dominant sector of the Frente Amplio coalition which controls not only the presidency but also parliament and 8 of 19 provinces (departmentos).
Two Leaders Replace One?
In Saturday’s appearance in Rosario, neither man made mention of their pasts. Although in an interview with the Uruguayan weekly Brecha in June Mujica, now in his early 70s, admitted that he would enter the presidential race with “lots of baggage,” both men seem determined to keep the discussion focused on deepening the Frente Amplio program through another five years of governance. Indeed, as Astori repeated time and again on Saturday evening, the choice for Uruguayan voters in October would be between “returning to the past” and “continuing down the path of transformations proposed by Frente Amplio.”
However, even with current president Tabaré Vázquez’s approval ratings nearing 70%, only a plurality of voters, 45% according to the most recent poll numbers, currently favor Frente Amplio’s reelection bid (35% support the Partido Nacional and 7% back the Partido Colorado). And while elections do remain one year away, frenteamplistas are already dreading a scenario in which they do not win an electoral majority, as the party did in 2004, forcing a second round of voting where the two opposition parties might join together.
Bridging the sectarian differences of a diverse coalition—a task which one man, out-going president Tabaré Vázquez, has successfully managed to do for four years—appears to now fall upon the shoulders of two, the technical Danilo Astori and the charismatic Pepe Mujica. As Mujica proclaimed in his closing remarks on Saturday, right now such “unity is more valuable than anything else.”
Joshua Frens-String, a freelance writer, currently lives and studies in Montevideo, Uruguay, where he is a Fulbright research scholar.
1 Interview with Astori, July 2008.