Hope and Disappointment in Uruguay’s Elections

"Democracy doesn’t exist without truth and justice. We have the right to know where our dead are and we have the right to demand that these people, although they are old, pay for the crimes they committed," said Graciela Pintado Nuñez, as their bus reached the outskirts of Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo. On Friday, October 23rd, two days before Uruguay’s Presidential elections, Nuñez and a group of nearly fifty Uruguayans made the overnight trip from their homes in Southern Brazil to their native country of Uruguay.

Image"Democracy doesn’t exist without truth and justice. We have the right to know where our dead are and we have the right to demand that these people, although they are old, pay for the crimes they committed," said Graciela Pintado Nuñez, as their bus reached the outskirts of Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo.

On Friday, October 23rd, two days before Uruguay’s Presidential elections, Nuñez and a group of nearly fifty Uruguayans made the overnight trip from their homes in Southern Brazil to their native country of Uruguay. It was a trip most of them had made many times before.

"I have caravanned to Uruguay to vote in every election and referendum since the return of democracy!" said Nuñez, who fled to Brazil with her husband 33 years ago, after they were kidnapped by the military police.

But this election was special. On top of voting for Uruguay’s next president, and the new Congress and Senate, they would be voting on two important plebiscites, both of which could directly affect their lives. If passed, one would annul the Ley de Caducidad, a 1986 law granting amnesty to military and police officers involved in human rights abuses during the dictatorship. The other would allow Uruguayans living abroad to vote in future elections from their home country. According to government statistics, a fifth of the Uruguayan population lives outside of Uruguay. Like Nuñez, many of those abroad fled during the dictatorship.

Upon its arrival in Montevideo, family members greeted the bus with cheers and waving banners. TV cameras filmed the travelers stepping on to the pavement, as they waved Uruguayan flags and sang. Excitement was in the air. The same scene was occurring across the country, as thousands of Uruguayans were arriving by boat from Argentina or plane from Spain, France or elsewhere. The Uruguayan Diaspora was coming home to vote.


Everyone knew it would be a close race. The polls showed both of the referendum losing, but when a Uruguayan Supreme Court decision declared the Ley de Caducidad unconstitutional less then a week before the elections, supporters believed it might change some minds.

ImageChildren of parents who were disappeared by the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Amaral García, Macarena Gelman and Mariana Zaffaroni, publicly endorsed the annulment of the Ley de Caducidad. As did influential Uruguayans such as the internationally acclaimed author, Eduardo Galeano, who addressed the multitudes stretched along Montevideo’s 18 de Julio Avenue during the closing rally of the campaign to annul the law on Tuesday, October 20th.

"It is a sad legacy of the military dictatorship, which has condemned us to pay its debts and to forget its crimes," said Galeano, calling on citizens to vote in favor of both plebiscites. "May Uruguayans put an end once and for all to this discrimination which has mutilated us."

The charismatic candidate of the leftist coalition, Frente Amplio, ex-guerrilla leader, José "Pepe" Mujica, was clearly the front-runner in the presidential race. But there was doubt if he would achieve the 50 percent of the vote necessary to avoid a runoff.

Frente Amplio supporters prayed for a remake of their legendary victory on October 31, 2004 when the coalition broke Uruguay’s traditional two party system and Presidential candidate, Tabaré Vásquez, took the presidency in the first round with just over fifty percent support.

Now at the end of his presidency, Vásquez has one of the highest approval ratings of any Uruguayan president in recent history. His administration has not been perfect, but it has instituted a number of poplar new social programs, succeeded in stabilizing sustained economic growth, passed a new progressive income tax reform, and despite the Ley de Caducidad, begun to try a number of military officials for human rights abuses during the dictatorship.

With the high approval, the presidential candidates, including those in the National and Colorado parties postured themselves as the continuation of the Vásquez presidency. Nevertheless, Frente Amplio supporters feared that a shift back to the traditional parties would mean an end to the social programs and fiscal policy that has characterized the last five years under the Frente Amplio administration, helping to lower poverty and sustain economic growth.

The stakes were high and completely divided. Leading the National party ticket was the conservative former president, and presidential candidate, Luis A. Lacalle. The smaller Colorado party was running Pedro Bordaberry, the son of the former President turned dictator, Juan Maria Bordaberry, who in 1973 kicked off the tiny country’s 12-year long dictatorship when he dissolved Uruguay’s Parliament and Regional Assemblies.

On the other side of the spectrum was Frente Amplio’s José Mujica (Agricultural Minister for most of the Vásquez administration), and his running mate, Danilo Astori, (Finance Minister under the Vásquez government). Mujica, a humble no-nonsense farmer, was a former member of Uruguay’s Tupamaro urban guerrillas, who served 14 years in prison before he was released in a general amnesty for political prisoners in 1985.

The stage was set. In the plazas and along the streets, campaigners passed out the last flyers. Cars drove through the city with Uruguayan, Frente Amplio and National party flags sticking out their windows, and blowing in the breeze. Families strolled through Parque Rodo and along the Ramblas past the waterfront, catching the last rays of the warm spring sun.

Election Day – Sunday, October 25

The polls opened early. Just after 8am, the first of the more than 2.5 million registered voters made their way to the voting stations. Compared with many countries in Latin America, voting in Uruguay in general, is relatively calm. This election was no exception. There was no mention of the possibility of fraud. Voting is mandatory, but Uruguayans exercise their civic duty more as their right, rather than an obligation.

"Uruguayans love to vote," said more than one person in a line of 10-20 people at a polling station in Montevideo. Many sipped on mate (a typical South American green tea), refilling their gourds with hot water from the thermoses beneath their arms.

Luisa Cuestas, 89, one of the founders of the Mothers and Family members of the Detained and Disappeared, arrived to her polling station in Eastern Montevideo by 9am. She was done in a half-hour.

"We have said from the very beginning that the Ley de Caducidad was null and immoral. We were never in doubt that the law shouldn’t exist," she said after placing her vote.

Macarena Gelman voted at the Escuela Alemana on the other side of town. She’s the granddaughter of the Argentine writer, Juan Gelman, and the child of Argentine parents who were kidnapped in Buenos Aires in 1976. Her father was murdered that year, and her pregnant mother was transferred to Uruguay under Operation Condor. Macarena believes she was born in a military hospital. Within a few months, her mother was "disappeared", and Macarena was left on the doorstep of an "adopted" family. She didn’t find out her true identity until 23 years later.

Gelman placed her ballot flanked by a half a dozen cameras, and stepped outside to explain how much the vote meant to her, and why people should vote to annul the Ley de Caducidad. And so was the case across the city as the day wore on. Adults took their elderly parents to vote. Families ate together and strolled through the park, or watched the latest news coming in from across the country. Excitement, hope, but like many things in Uruguay, relative calm.

The Results

At roughly 8:30pm, an hour after the polls had closed, Luis Eduardo Gonzalez, a pollster for Channel 2, announced that it appeared that the Ley de Caducidad was on its way to being annulled. The result was immediate. At the headquarters of the PIT-CNT, Uruguay’s national labor coalition and the principal supporter of the initiative, activists celebration. Frente Amplio supporters cheered and danced at the rally along the waterfront. Meanwhile, supporters at the National party headquarters booed.

ImageBut the news did not last long. Within an hour, the result of the Ley de Caducidad referendum was reversed. By 10pm, the preliminary results were announced. Both referendum have lost. Mujica had roughly 47 percent, not nearly enough to take the presidency in the first round.

The results were quickly confirmed when Mujica and Astoria held a press conference, stating that the people had spoken and that they were now headed to a second round. A half-hour later, they took to the stage before thousands of supporters lined along the waterfront.

"There is no doubt, after today’s vote that we are on our way to victory!" Astori told the crowd. The multitudes responded enthusiastically, but there was a thick sense of defeat. The following day, it was confirmed that the plebiscite to annul the Ley de Caducidad had received 48 percent support. Several percent points better than the last referendum attempt to annul the law in 1989, but not enough for victory.

"I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe that the people didn’t vote for it," said freshman sociology student, Agustin Flores at the Frente Amplio rally after Mujica had left the stage. "It was our second chance [to annul the Ley de Caducidad]. I understand that the first time maybe people were scared because they were just coming out of the dictatorship, but how can the people not want to bring to justice what was unconstitutional for 15 years? A coup d’etat. A coup d’etat and everyone saw it. Judicially, the law is unconstitutional. It doesn’t allow democracy’s separation of powers. It doesn’t allow the executive branch to investigate what happened."

But only five blocks away, supporters at the National party headquarters were already celebrating.

"From the legal point of view, the idea of annulling the Ley de Caducidad is just ridiculous. Imagine if they annulled Uruguay’s divorce law that allows me to get a divorce. I’d still be married to my ex-wife," said Luis Silva, a Montevideo businessman carrying a picture of the National Party candidate, Luis A. Lacalle. "We believe that you can’t look to the past. We believe that you have to treat the issue with respect and memory, but always looking towards the future."

Other National party supporters criticized the fact that only the Ley de Caducidad had been up for a referendum and not the 1985 Amnesty Law, which granted amnesty to individuals charged with "political, common or military crimes" from January 1st, 1962 on. The Amnesty Law opened the door for José Mujica’s release from prison in 1985, after 14 years as a political prisoner.

"Asesino, asesino, asesino!" ("Killer, killer, killer") erupted the National party supporters only moments later, as Mujica’s name was mentioned on a large screen set up outside of the National party headquarters, transmitting the incoming results.

"Mujica was an assassin," says the former real estate agent, Sandra Verniz, matter-of-factly. "I think it’s terrible that the Uruguayan people could be so ignorant to support a thief and assassin in the government."

"On top of that, he doesn’t speak correctly, he’s uncultured, he doesn’t know anything about the laws, he doesn’t know anything about anything," says Alicia (who declined to give her last name), a life-long National party supporter, while celebrating the results. "How is he going to rule? It’s impossible that someone like that is going to be able to govern. Impossible!"

Of course, Mujica knows much more than his adversaries would like to admit. In 1994 he was elected as a Montevideo Congressional representative and in 1999, he took a seat in the Senate where he remained until now, except for a three year stint as Agriculture Minister in the Vásquez administration. His simple, non-political and humble persona, which alienates some members of the traditional parties, is exactly what carries Mujica among his supporters. "He arrived to his first day in the Senate on an old motorscooter, hair uncombed. They didn’t want to let him in to the Senate!" recalls a Frente Amplio supporter laughing.

On election night, Mujica showed where his alliances lye, cutting short the press conference to go greet the rally of thousands of Frente Amplio supporters along the rambla. "The most important things now is to go speak with the compañeros," he said.

But while this may have a decisive effect on his supporters, as the Uruguayan weekly leftist journal, Brecha, pointed out the day after the elections, this is not going to help Mujica capture the must needed votes among independent, undecided and center-left voters in order for Frente to take the runoff election on November 29th.

And this appears to be more important than ever. While Mujica and Frente Amplio (47.15 percent) came in 19 points above their closest challenger, Lacalle. Before the end of election night, Lacalle (28.76 percent) and Bordaberry (16.80 percent), who came in 2nd and 3rd had already committed to forming a coalition to defeat Frente Amplio.

"We can do it! We can do it! We can do it! We are going to win!" cried Lacalle to hundreds of supporters still amassed around the National party headquarters at nearly 1am. The total votes received by Lacalle and Bordaberry combined, are within four percentage points of Frente Amplio.

The results portray two clear realities. One, that with little breathing room, the November 29 runoff is going to be a tight race. Two, with the loss of both referendums and the failure of Frente Amplio to acquire more than 50 percent in the first round, "the progressive project" is rolling through troubled waters.

Image"Today, the progressive project was defeated," said Frente Amplio supporter, Carlos Soria, on election night after the rally. "You have to assume it as it is—a defeat. We have to learn from this lesson, because throughout the world, the right-wing and the reactionary vote is winning all over the place. Latin America is a flower in the world, and you win with your openness, with generosity, speaking with every group there is. There are no single recipes to repeat."

"In the background, [the electoral results] are a response to the fact that the leftist government has not created a cultural shift in Uruguay’s political cosmovision,"

wrote Sociologist Gustavo Leal, the night of the elections in his Brecha article, "The ‘Brake’ on the ‘Progressive era." In other words, although Frente Amplio’s 2004 win may have broken a 170-year-long two party system and although the Tabaré Vásquez presidency may have an approval rating of 65 percent, Frente Amplio hasn’t been able to completely alter the political landscape of the country in the direction of the left.

"We couldn’t win the conservative vote and the most fundamental thing now is to defeat the conservative project," said Soria. "I feel like the presidential candidate didn’t do the right things to defeat the conservative project. They got stuck on him and he didn’t say the right things. If we are not going to end up like we were, you have to talk about the Uruguay that dreams, innovates, produces, and this is the Uruguay that we are already constructing. I think we need to reorganize, with ideas and a lot of enthusiasm."

Going Home

The day after the election, Nuñez, and the group of Uruguayans, amassed outside of an old bus station a couple of blocks from 18 de Julio, preparing to board their bus home. The mood was more somber, but Frente Amplio supporters are used to setbacks and challenges.

There was some positive news. The leftist coalition had taken a legislative majority in the Senate and the Congress. Even if Frente were to somehow lose in November, the incoming president would have to fight against a Frente-control legislature.

The failure to annul the Ley de Caducidad was a huge defeat, but it is not the end of the struggle.

"We must begin again," says Eduardo Pirotto, a member of the Uruguayan Family Members of the Disappeared. "This isn’t over. There is no end. We just have to find the way to begin the road again, from where we are now."

The October 19 Uruguayan Supreme Court decision which declared the Ley de Caducidad unconstitutional may help. Only three days before the elections, a Montevideo court sentenced Uruguay’s last dictator, Gregorio Alvarez, to 25 years in prison for murder and human rights violations. The decisions could set a precedent to help expedite other convictions.

There were no musical serenades on the overnight trip back into Brazil, as there were on the way down. But the energy on the bus was light. The sun rose as the bus approached the Guaiba River and the city-scape of Porto Alegre in the distance.

"Are you going back for the runoff?" someone asked. "Of course," someone else responded.

They were just pulling into town and people were already discussing the return trip. The tired travelers descended from the bus, said their goodbyes and slowly dispersed into the city with their luggage.

"We’ll see you next month," says Nuñez. November 29, 2009 is now a date that many Uruguayans are waiting for.

Michael Fox is a South America-based freelance journalist, radio reporter and documentary filmmaker. He is co-director of the recently released documentary, Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas and co-author of the upcoming book, Venezuela Speaks!: Voices From the Grassroots. For more articles, reports or videos, visit his blog.