Under the umbrella


In February 2003 Tabaré Vázquez, presidential candidate of the Frente Amplio in Uruguay and clear favourite to win elections in 2005, met with officials of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Inter American Development Bank and the World Bank in Washington DC. The Uruguayan foreign debt has soared almost to equal the entire annual income of the country.

At one time the Frente was part of the deafening concert of Latin American voices calling for the non-payment of foreign debt. Now it talks about 'restructuring'. The IMF itself suggests 'restructuring' may be the only way to avoid default.

As a political movement that endured the torture, imprisonment and exile of its activists, the Frente knows that changing economic structures is more complex than winning an election. This does not mean that the old demands have been abandoned altogether. Breaking with neoliberal orthodoxy, Vázquez said in Washington: 'Sometimes it's necessary to find social balance at the expense of economic objectives.'

The history of the Frente, bringing together all the Left political groups in the country, began during the economic crises and looming political authoritarianism of the 1960s. By 1971 it had even been joined by the political wing of the Tupamaro urban guerrillas, and hardly anyone was left outside the 'umbrella'.

During the military repression that began in 1973 imprisoned and tortured Communists shared cells with Tupamaro guerrillas, trade unionists and frentista militants. Local committees (comités de base) became the key to survival. Although these committees were the focus for activists from different groups, they were also open to people with no affiliations other than to the Frente itself. By the time the dictatorship ended in 1985 the Left was united and the Frente had consolidated its position.

In 1989 Tabaré Vázquez was elected Mayor of Montevideo, the capital city where almost half the population of some three million Uruguayans live. The Frente has since won successive municipal elections in Montevideo with larger votes, in 2000 passing 50 per cent.

However, Uruguay now faces one of the gravest economic crises in its history. The Brazilian devaluation of 1999 hit the economy hard, in effect removing its principal export market. A drought in 1999 and the closure of meat markets by an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001 were followed by the débâcle in Argentina. After a massive devaluation of the currency, by early 2003 unemployment in Uruguay had reached an all-time record 20 per cent.

The economic prospects could hardly look more discouraging. But the Frente appears convinced that the election of a progressive government in 2005 could change the country's fortunes. With a population clearly hostile to privatization (a law that would have permitted the sale of state enterprises was rejected by 72 per cent of voters in a 1992 plebiscite), government still controls the banking system as well as monopolies in oil refining, communications, water and electricity that are potential instruments of recovery.

During the past 32 years the Left may have moved with feet of lead, but it has never quite stopped moving altogether. The next few years will show whether the Frente can make the country a model of solidarity once again - as it was at the beginning of the last century.

Roberto Elissalde is a journalist writing for Brecha magazine. He is based in Montevideo.

New Internationalist issue 356 magazine cover This article is from the May 2003 issue of New Internationalist.
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