By Asad Ismi
Uruguay, a small South American nation located between Argentina and Brazil, has been carrying forth the Latin American Revolution for the last eight years, with impressive social gains. Two left-wing governments, both of the Frente Amplio political party (Broad Front—FA), have been ruling the country of 3.3 million people since 2004, having broken the long-standing right-wing domination of the political system.
According to one observer, the FA “has transformed the political and social landscape of the country, from the grassroots to the presidential palace.” The party has concentrated on reducing poverty and increasing access to public health care and education, as well as promoting participatory democracy.
The FA’s first administration, headed by President Tabaré Vasquez, reduced poverty from 32% to 20% between 2004 and 2010, and extreme poverty from 4% to 1.5%. Under a “Social Emergency Plan,” the Tabaré government significantly increased spending on public health care, housing, and on providing people with employment and food, while raising taxes on the rich. In this way, the FA has made substantial progress towards universal health coverage. Amazingly, the Tabaré government also gave a laptop computer with an internet connection to each primary school student, the first time any country has ever done this.
Under the FA, Uruguay has had 35.4% cumulative GDP growth since 2005, a near halving of unemployment from 13% to 7%, and the creation of 200,000 jobs. These social and economic achievements got the FA re-elected in March 2010, with Jose (“Pepe”) Mujica succeeding Tabaré as President.
In addition to redistributing wealth, the Frente Amplio has also spread participatory democracy. As Mayor of Montevideo (the capital city) in the 1990s, Tabaré created a wide network of organizations to facilitate public participation in local government. Communal councils (which later also emerged in Venezuela) were set up to “monitor government operations and participate in budget-making, as well as design projects and consider laws and policies at the grassroots level.”
This expansion of political participation, and the FA’s leading role in a public campaign against water privatization, were crucial to ensuring its victory in the 2004 election. The result of a referendum legally prohibited water privatization after 62% of Uruguayans voted against it.
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The Frente Amplio was formed in 1971 as a coalition of Communist, Socialist, and Christian Democrat parties, and was aimed at ending the domination of the National Party and Colorado Party, both conservative, which had ruled Uruguay for 175 years. The FA wanted to bring about a political revolution that would create a fair and democratic society and redistribute the wealth that had been monopolized by a small élite since independence from Spain in 1830.
The FA’s rapid gain in popularity and votes alarmed the élite, the military, and the United States, which together rigged the 1971 election and then launched a military coup to crush the FA and the progressive movement by brute force.
Following his election in November 2009, Jose Mujica, Uruguay’s second president from the Frente Amplio, promised to end extreme poverty and develop Uruguay’s countryside. He has focused on building more housing for the poor, further expanding public access to education (with laptops now being provided also to secondary school students), renovating the train network, and increasing Uruguay’s participation in regional integration with the other ten leftist Latin American governments. The President has donated most of his salary to the homeless.
Mujica and the FA take their inspiration from the redistributive social democratic policies of Luiz Inacio (Lula) da Silva, Brazil’s very popular former president. Says Mujica about his tenure so far: “We gave continuity to certain policies that came from the previous [Tabaré] administration, which was of the same kind, and we have had some good results. For example, infant mortality decreased by two points, and unemployment in Uruguay, which was a calamity, is now down to 5.5% or 6%. We have lowered considerably the number of indigents; there are about 35,000 left and we are going to find them, one by one. We have decreased poverty considerably.
“We want to redistribute a lot… Philosophically, we do not like capitalism, not by a long shot. From that point of view, we have a socialist conception of man… In the final analysis, although it is schematic, progressive leftist governments tend to favour the broadest sectors with the least resources. They may have many defects, but they tend to distribute. Conservative governments tend to concentrate more. That is the difference. It is possible for Lula to be criticized a lot, but the truth is that 40 or 50 million Brazilians stopped being chronically poor and today make up what we could call the ‘small middle class.’”
The FA government gives great importance to Latin American integration. “What can we Latin Americans do if we are divided, a heap of republics?” asks President Mujica. “Bringing Brazil and Argentina in tune with one another is key to this development. It is not easy and we could fail, because there are always short-term interests and patriotism. We Uruguayans are very clear in this discourse; we raise this flag of unity and association.”
Uruguay has close relations with the Chavez government in Venezuela, a main leader of the Latin American Revolution. President Chavez is providing Uruguay with 40,000 barrels of oil a day, at a discounted price, and the two countries are collaborating in oil exploration.
President Mujica is a former guerrilla who was imprisoned for 14 years and brutally tortured under the ruthless military dictatorship that ruled Uruguay from 1973 to 1985. He appointed two other former imprisoned guerrillas as ministers in his government: Luis Rosadilla as Defence Minister and Eduardo Bonomi as Interior Minister. As Mujica explains, “We are not waiting for paradise… but trying to escape from hell and cultivate hope.”
Says Manuela Nieves, a housewife, “Because of the all the years of suffering, we now deserve that the left continue to be in the government. Mujica represents the people. He will continue on the path of Tabaré but with a different heart.”
The military dictatorship took over Uruguay in a coup with U.S. support in 1973, unleashing a 13-year reign of terror against civilians. Three hundred people were killed by the security forces, 7,000 political prisoners were held, and tens of thousands were tortured. The repression was so extensive that it created the largest per capita number of political prisoners and torture victims in the region, as well as the greatest per capita exodus of political refugees from one country at the time.
The U.S. made sure that even refuge would be difficult to find in neighbouring countries by facilitating the coordination of “Operation Condor,” in which the militaries of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay cooperated in killing each other’s political exiles. At the time, all six countries were ruled by U.S.-backed military dictatorships which in this joint operation killed 50,000 people, disappeared 30,000, and imprisoned 400,000. Three thousand children were included in those killed or disappeared. More than 150 Uruguayans were murdered in Argentina under Operation Condor.
The CIA and the Pentagon showed the Uruguayan army how to create death squads and taught its officers and policemen torture techniques. Washington’s most notorious torture instructor in Uruguay was Dan Mitrione, who was head of the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Office of Public Safety (OPS). “The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount, for the desired effect,” Mitrione emphasized. He tortured beggars kidnapped from Montevideo in a soundproof room in his home in front of Uruguayan police officers.
Mitrione personally tortured four beggars to death with electric shocks. U.S. advisers made torture routine in Uruguay (which it was not before) and the methods used included electric shocks to the genitals, electric needles under fingernails, burning with cigarettes, compression of testicles, brutalizing pregnant women, and imprisoning women with their infants.
Fighting against the military were the Tupamaro guerrillas (President Mujica was a founder of the group) described by William Blum, the leading expert on the CIA, as “perhaps the cleverest, most resourceful, and most sophisticated urban guerrillas the world has ever seen.” As The New York Times pointed out, “The Tupamaros normally avoid bloodshed when possible. They try instead to create embarrassment for the government and general disorder.” However, the U.S.’s expansion of torture and repression in Uruguay in turn caused “an escalation in Tupamaro activity.” The guerrillas kidnapped Mitrione, put him on trial, and executed him when the government (with U.S. support) refused to exchange the torturer for 150 political prisoners.
After Uruguay’s dictatorship ended in 1985 (followed by 19 years of right-wing neoliberal elected governments), the military protected itself from prosecution for the killings and torture by passing an amnesty law. In October 2011, the Frente Amplio-dominated legislature revoked this law, opening the way for the punishment of all guilty military officers. President Mujica explained, “There is a part of the people who have suffered more, and above all there are their families, who have found no consolation for some things that happened in Uruguay and who have not had a hearing from the judicial point of view.”
In spite of the amnesty law, the FA’s first president after 2005, Tabare Vásquez, pushed ahead with several prosecutions, including the imprisonment of two former dictators, Juan Maria Bordaberry (1973-1976) and Gregorio Álvarez (1981-1985). The latter was sentenced to 25 years in prison for murder and other crimes. Twenty members of the military have been tried and convicted for human rights abuses.
“Democracy does not 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. She left Uruguay for Brazil in 1977 after being kidnapped by the military.
Macarena Gelman is the granddaughter of Juan Gelman, a famous Argentine poet. Her parents were kidnapped by the Argentine military in Buenos Aires in 1976. Macarena’s father was murdered that year, and her pregnant mother was moved to Uruguay under Operation Condor.
Macarena was born in a military hospital, after which her mother, who had been tortured, was “disappeared.” Macarena was given to an “adopted” family and it took her 23 years to discover who she really was. In January 2012, President Mujica approved a $513,000 payment to Macarena in compensation for her suffering.
Published in The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, April 2012
Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent. He is author of the radio documentary The Latin American Revolution which has been aired on 40 radio stations in the U.S., Canada and Europe reaching about 33 million people. The documentary can be heard on this website under the category “audio”. He is also author of the anthology with the same title which can be ordered from the CCPA. This article is the twelfth in a series on the Latin American Revolution.