Uruguay: From Revolution to Dilution


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

ZNet | Latin America
Uruguay's Frente Amplio
From Revolution to Dilution
by MIchael Fox; June 19, 2007

How one of Latin America¹s most radical progressive coalitions finally achieved 
their country¹s 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 where 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 weaking 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, 

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 

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 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.

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 Uruguay¹s 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 Uruguay¹s 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.  Uruguay¹s 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 Frente¹s revolutionary 
platform.  Some say Frente¹s 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.  
Uruguay¹s 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 ³one thing 
to be in the opposition, and completely another to be in power.²

That's fine for those in power, but such excuses don¹t cut it for many in Frente
Amplio¹s progressive base.  In a fairly telling moment, two marches were held 
simultaneously on the evening of Bush¹s arrival in early March.  One, denouncing
Bush¹s 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 

³Frente Amplio is part political party and part social movement², say Frente 
Amplistas, who try to explain the coalition¹s growth since the dictatorship and 
support in the communities, which traditionally could voice their opinion 
through Frente´s grassroots network.

Frente¹s ³Grassroots Committees²- 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 

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 


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

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