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The Waters of October


A few days before last November's election of the President of the planet in the US, elections and a plebiscite were held in a little-known, almost secret, South American country called Uruguay. In these elections, for the first time in the country's history, the Left won; and in the plebiscite, for the first time in world history, the privatization of water was rejected by popular vote, asserting that water is the right of all people.

The movement, headed by President-elect Tabare Vazquez, ended the monopoly of the two traditional parties - the Blanco and the Colorado parties - which had governed Uruguay since the creation of the universe.

Tired of being cheated, this time the people made use of that little-used instrument, common sense. The people asked: 'Why do they promise change yet ask us to choose between the same and the same? Why didn't they make any of these changes in the eternity they have been in power?'

Never had the abyss between the real country and electioneering rhetoric been so evident. In the real country, where the only growth is in the number of emigrants and beggars, the majority chose to cover their ears to block out the oratory of these Martians competing for the government of Jupiter with highfalutin' words imported from the moon.

About 30 or so years ago, the Broad Front (Frente Amplio) sprouted on these southern plains. 'Brother, don't leave,' the new movement implored: 'There is hope.' But crisis moved faster than hope and the haemorrhaging of the country's youth accelerated. The dream of a 'Switzerland of the Americas' ended and the nightmare of violence and poverty began, culminating in a military dictatorship that converted Uruguay into a vast torture chamber.

Afterwards, when democracy was restored, the dominant politicians destroyed the little that remained of the system of production and converted Uruguay into a giant bank. Eventually, the bank went bust and Uruguay found itself emptied of people and filled with debt.

In all these years of disaster after disaster we lost a multitude. And, not content to force just its youth from the country, this sclerotic system then prohibits them from voting - one of a small number of countries that do so. It seems inexplicable but there is an explanation: who would these emigrants vote for? The owners of the country suspect the worst and with good reason.

In the final act of his campaign the vice-presidential candidate for the Colorado Party announced that if the Left won the elections, all Uruguayans would have to dress identically like the Chinese under Mao.

He was one of the many involuntary publicity agents of the victorious Left. Not even the most tireless electoral workers did as much for this victory as the tribunes of the homeland who alerted the population to the imminent danger if democracy were to fall to the tyrannical enemies of freedom and the terrorists, kidnappers, and assassins who oppose democracy. Their attacks were extremely efficient - the more they denounced the devils, the more people voted for hell. Largely thanks to these heralds of the apocalypse, the Left won by absolute majority, without a runoff. The people voted against fear.

The plebiscite on water was also a victory against fear. Uruguayans were bombarded with extortion, threats and lies: a vote against privatizing water will condemn you to a future of sewage-filled wells and putrid ponds.

As in the elections, common sense triumphed. In their vote, the people asserted that water, a scarce and finite natural resource, must be a right of all people and not a privilege for those who can pay for it. The people also showed they know that sooner rather than later, in a thirsty world, the reserves of fresh water will be as coveted as oil. Countries that are poor but rich in water must learn to defend themselves. More than five centuries have passed since Columbus. How long can we go on trading gold for glass beads?

Wouldn't it be worthwhile for other countries to put the issue of water to a popular vote? In a democracy, a true democracy, who should decide? The World Bank, or the citizens of each country? Do democratic rights exist for real, or are they just the icing on a poisoned cake? In 1992, Uruguay was the only country in the world to put the privatization of public companies to a popular vote: 72 per cent opposed. Wouldn't it be democratic to do the same in every country, given that privatization affects the future of generations?

For centuries, Latin Americans have been trained in impotence. A pedagogy passed down from the colonial times, taught by violent soldiers, timorous teachers and frail fatalists has rooted in our souls the belief that reality is untouchable and that all we can do is swallow in silence the woes each day brings.

The Uruguay of other days was the exception. That Uruguay instituted free public education before England, women's suffrage before France, the eight-hour workday before the United States and divorce before Spain - 70 years before Spain, to be exact.

Now we are trying to revive this creative energy and would do well to recall that the Uruguay of that sunny period was the child of audacity, not fear.

It will not be easy. Implacable reality will promptly remind us of the inevitable distance between the desired and the possible. The Left is coming to power in a shattered country which in the distant past was at the vanguard of universal progress but today is one of the furthest behind - in debt up to its ears and subjected to the international financial dictatorship, which doesn't vote but simply vetoes.

Today we have very little manoeuvring room. But what is usually difficult, even impossible, can be imagined and even achieved if we join together with neighbouring countries, just as we have joined together with our neighbours.

In the Broad Front's very first demonstration, which flooded the streets with people, someone shouted, halfjoyous, half-scared: 'Let's dare to win.'

Thirty or so years later, it came true. The country is unrecognizable. Uruguayans, so unbelieving that even nihilism was beyond them, have started to believe, with fervour. Today this melancholic people, who at first glance might be Argentineans on valium, are dancing on air.

The winners have a tremendous burden of responsibility, for those who voted and those whom they voted for. This rebirth of faith and revival of happiness must be watched over carefully. We should recall every day how right Carlos Quijano was - sins against hope are the only sins beyond forgiveness and redemption.

Eduardo Galeano is one of Latin America's foremost authors. © IPS

New Internationalist issue 376 magazine cover This article is from the March 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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