Leftist Win in Uruguay Elections
by Michael Collins
Uruguay's left wing political coalition,
the Broad Front party (Frente Amplio), retained control of the
presidency in the November elections. This wasn't just any election.
The winner, flower farmer Jose "Pepe" Mujica, was the
victim of imprisonment and torture during Operation Condor in
the 1970's as a result of his efforts as a Tupamaro rebel. During
that period of military dictatorship, the new president spent
fourteen years in prison, including two years confined at the
bottom of a well.
Mujica won 48% of the vote in the initial round of elections on
October 25. He then pushed his total to 52% for a comfortable
victory in the November 29 runoff voting against Conservative
candidate Luis Alberto Lacalle who gained 44% of the vote. In
the 2004 elections, outgoing President Tabaré Vázquez,
also of the Broad Front coalition, won with just over 50% of the
Mujica set an expansive tone in his inaugural speech by stating,
"My government will be a government of open doors, and above
all a negotiating administration we will demand commitment, compromise
and hard work" MercoPress, Nov. 30. He then announced meetings
with President Lula da Silva of Brazil and Argentine President
Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
In one of his first statements after the election, Mujica asked
his fellow citizens "to work more and talk less," stop
blaming others for their problems, and to recognize that "we
are certainly not at the door of the apocalypse." MercoPress,
The victory was celebrated by tens of thousands of jubilant Uruguayans
on Montevideo's ocean front. It represents the second leftist
win in a nation journalist Michael Reid describes as one of two
"consolidated democracies" in Latin America (Costa Rica
is the other).
The election is the climax of over fifty years personal drama
for President-elect Mujica and a national struggle that began
with a repressive military dictatorship and a revolutionary response
during the 1960's and 70's. Thousands of citizens were kidnapped,
tortured, exiled, and imprisoned while urban resistance was, at
times, marked by violent action against the ruling junta.
From 1986 on, a "broad front" of leftist parties aligned
to fight the blanket reprieve the crimes of the military leaders.
While this referendum was defeated 52% to 42%, an expanded coalition
won a 1992 national vote that prevented the privatization the
national telephone company and other public utilities.
The creation of the Broad Front as a peaceful force for social
democracy after years of the most repressive dictatorship is a
story worth telling. The election of a former rebel leader imprisoned
and tortured for fourteen years is the stuff of great stories.
You don't have to be a socialist to appreciate the Uruguayan
The mainstream media barely covered the story, although a number
of dailies carried the Associate Press summary by Michael Warren,
Ex-guerrilla easily wins Uruguay presidency. The New York Times
relied on a Reuters News story, Former Guerrilla Wins Uruguay
Presidential Run - Off.
A more in depth review of this election and the changes in Uruguay
would have revealed a remarkable story of suffering, struggle,
and redemption; a story that shows the long term vitality of social
movements focusing on the core issues faced by the vast majority
Years of the Condor
Under the code name, Operation Condor, from 1976 on, intelligence
agencies for the military dictators in Uruguay, Argentina, Chile,
Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay waged a "dirty war" against
dissident citizens claimed to be "terrorists." This
meant nonviolent social reformers and socialists, plus a much
smaller group actually using violence as a tactic. The terror
inflicted by the dictatorships dwarfed any rural or urban violence
they sought to control.
Over sixty thousand people were murdered or "disappeared"
and torture was routine. Citizens in the Condor nations were
victimized by the loss of political freedom and vicariously traumatized
by living in an environment of kidnappings and violence perpetrated
by their governments.
The Nixon administration established the overall methodology by
supporting the violent coup staged in Chile that removed Salvador
Allende, the elected president, and replaced him with General
Augusto Pinochet. There is evidence that Operation Condor was
an extension of previous U.S. government sponsored efforts against
the left in Latin America.
The war was particularly rough on Uruguay, a smaller nation, where
human losses and to political repression were experienced daily
by citizens. Yet despite this violent history, Uruguayans, Brazilians,
and Chileans persevered to regain basic human rights. For years
now, the civilian governments that replaced the military dictators
have been investigating and unearthing the past horrors as a preventive
measure against future abuse. Legitimately elected governments
of leftists operate through coalition building and shun reprisals.
At the same time, here in the United States, the new administration
is reviving an eight year old war in Afghanistan. It refuses
to investigate and prosecute the architects of torture while it
provides legal cover for the former government lawyer whose opinions
enabled that torture and eviscerated the Constitution.
There are lessons to be learned from the history leading to Uruguay's
current democracy. One of them is honestly facing the truth of