Uruguay’s Frente Amplio: From Revolution to Dilution

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.  

The Beginning

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 alliances.  

Nevertheless, progressive 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 were finally able to unite under the National Workers Convention (CNT), organizing the majority of the nation’s workers under one roof. 

The late 1960s brought increasing political turmoil to the tiny country of Uruguay, with the weakening 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 5th, 1971.   

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 state industry.

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 American nation.    

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 the 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 alive.

"Celebrate Uruguayans, 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 Departments.    

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 awaited him.

Current Events

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 the Presidency.

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 society.       

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 look north. 

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.  

Frente’s "Grassroots 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.  

"Personal Ambition," 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 left."

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 complicated."  

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 countryside.

"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 principles."


Michael Fox is a journalist and translator in South America.  He is also a radio correspondent with Free Speech Radio News (www.fsrn.org) gand Uruguay’s Real World Radio (www.realworldradio.fm).

Brazilian researcher and fotographer, Silvia Leindecker, contributed to this article with countless interviews, research, and insight.