- The Washington Times - Monday, November 1, 2004

COLONIA, Uruguay — Uruguay tapped Tabare Vazquez as its first socialist president in Sunday’s election, joining a growing group of South American countries embracing leftist governments.

The vote ended nearly 200 years of monopolistic rule by Uruguay’s two traditional powers, the National and Colorado parties, and signaled a rejection of the failed policies of outgoing President Jorge Batlle.

Mr. Vazquez of the Frente-Amplio Party won 50.7 percent of the vote in his third run for president, prompting celebrations across the country. The political coalition counts among its ranks social democrats, communists and former Tupamaro rebels who challenged a military junta from 1973 to 1985.

Speaking to reporters Sunday, Mr. Vazquez, a 64-year-old doctor and former mayor of the capital, Montevideo, called for a unified future.

“We are going to extend a brotherly and tolerant hand because the Uruguay of the future has to be built between all of us,” he said.

“Under the old parties things got worse and worse every day,” said Carlos Vuoso, a 56-year-old retired Uruguayan. “For us, there was no other choice.”

Frustrated by high unemployment and widespread poverty, voters tapped Mr. Vazquez in a wave of populist emotion found in other countries in the region.

Though voters in Chile chose Raul Alcaino, a right-wing candidate, for the governorship of Santiago, they handed President Ricardo Lagos’ center-left government victories in many municipal elections. In Venezuela, voters tossed momentum behind President Hugo Chavez, handing 21 of the country’s 23 governorships to Chavez allies.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the leftist president in Brazil, was not as lucky. His Workers Party was handed a setback when voters tapped Jose Serra of the Social Democratic Party of Brazil as the mayor of Sao Paulo. The Workers Party also lost a mayoral race in Porto Alegre, the capital of the state of Rio Grande do Sul.

Pummeled by spillover effects from economic crisis in neighboring Argentina and Brazil, Uruguay witnessed a major economic downswing in 2001 and 2002. High unemployment, inflation and a rise in external debt left a third of the country’s 3.4 million people below the poverty line. In recent years, however, Uruguay’s economy has experienced a small rebound.

“The reason you are seeing these kinds of changes in Uruguay and other governments here is because the poor people have had enough injustice and now they are voting,” said Gabriela Fernandez, a 40-year-old office worker in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. “They are getting organized.”

The failed economies of South America have spread poverty and deep mistrust of U.S.-favored free-market reforms. But socialist rhetoric is a political tight-rope walk for politicians, especially as regional economies like Argentina and Uruguay are witnessing economic growth.

Mr. Vazquez campaigned largely on a rejection of privatization and the embrace of leftist policies to fight poverty. And dovetailing with that rhetoric, voters approved an anti-privatization measure to keep the nation’s water resources under state control.

With an eye to maintaining an economic upswing, Mr. Vazquez promised moderation and agreed to respect trade agreements. Uruguay signed a bilateral trade agreement with the United States.

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