Feet to the Flames (3/24/05)

On March 1, 2005, the night Tabaré Vázquez was inaugurated as President of Uruguay, a sea of people, flags and drum brigades surged through the streets of Montevideo. Fireworks pounded the air and car horns shrieked. The city bubbled with a cathartic happiness.

In Uruguay, 30 per cent of the population of three million live below the poverty line, 15 per cent are unemployed and economic activity staggers along at a level 20 per cent below what it was in 1990. The country has the highest proportion of people aged over 60 in Latin America: 15 per cent – most of them young – have left the country in search of work.

In the face of these difficulties, voters in the 31 October 2004 presidential election evidently thought twice before voting for business as usual. The new Frente Amplio [Broad Front] Government is pledged to massive reforms in healthcare and education. It plans to reactivate sugar production, provide credit to farmers, raise the salaries of rural workers and implement an emergency strategy to deal with unemployment. The kidnappings and torture carried out by the military dictatorship in the 1970s will be investigated.

‘Vázquez’s victory is a powerful change for Uruguay,’ asserted Martin Bension, a history teacher in Montevideo. ‘Now the people will have more opportunity to participate in the Government. Right from the foundation of the Frente Amplio, decades ago, there has been popular participation in it. The Frente makes people feel more connected and so more people become involved…

‘A lot of people died and went to jail in the seventies to win what the Frente Amplio has today. The Vázquez administration knows this and will have to keep it in mind. Besides improvements in Uruguay, I would like Mercosur [Latin America’s ‘Southern Cone’ trade block] to work out. The nations of Latin America should unite – just as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is trying to do – in spite of our soccer rivalries! We can unify because of our common histories. We’ve all been colonized and controlled by foreign powers and these common characteristics can unite us.’

Vázquez has already reopened relations with Cuba and signed trade deals with Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil.

Neighbourhood Frente Amplio ‘base committees’ are located around the country. Oscar Gandolo, a painter, has been active in his neighbourhood for five years. ‘The economy was going from bad to worse,’ he recalled. ‘I had to do something… We have meetings every week where we get together and decide what we think the Government needs to do, and cover issues that the Government misses.’

A couple of days after the presidential inauguration, the mood at a base committee in Montevideo was upbeat. The setting was typical of other party offices around Montevideo; a cluttered meeting room with books and political pamphlets stacked along tables, a picture of Ché Guevara painted on the wall and campaign posters plastered everywhere. People filed into the room, joking, patting each other on the back and passing around mate, a thick herbal tea popular in Uruguay and Argentina.

Eventually they sat down and introduced themselves; carpenters, school teachers, plumbers, students, electricians, unemployed people, musicians. Some had been members of the party for decades; others were showing up for the first time.

First they planned a cultural event with artists and musicians from Uruguay and Cuba. Then, after lengthy discussions, they elected a secretary, a ‘representative’, a treasurer. They went on to talk about security in the neighbourhood and the condition of one of the main roads.

A long-standing member of the group spoke to new arrivals: ‘From those who just arrived for the first time, we ask for your participation. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know anything about politics. You’ll learn while you’re here. With this new Government in office, the responsibility of the people is greater than ever before.’

To prevent the Vázquez government from bowing to the International Monetary Fund and corporate power, popular participation will be crucial. The new administration’s feet will have to be held to the flames to avoid the shift to the right which has occurred after the election of President Lula in Brazil. But, for now, hope and enthusiasm seem to be enough to carry the day.

Benjamin Dangl is the editor of