Former Tupamaro Revolutionary José Mujica’s Presidency Will Likely Follow the Incumbent’s Successful Policies

On November 29, 2009, José “Pepé” Mujica of the left-center coalition, Frente Amplio (Broad Front-FA), won the run-off election in Uruguay with 53.2% of the vote compared to the 42.7% of his opponent, former president Luis Alberto Lacalle. Mujica’s win represents a consolidation of power for the FA, as the incumbent Tabaré Vázquez was not only the coalition’s first elected president, but also the first left-leaning leader since before the era of military rule, which lasted from 1973-85. Vazquez’s near 70% public approval rating paved the way for Mujica, who has promised to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps by continuing his moderate social and market-friendly reforms, with little focus on foreign policy.

Overview of the Tupamaros and the Frente Amplio

The National Liberation Movement-Tupamaros originated in the 1960s as an urban guerrilla group seeking to propagate its agenda of political and social change. It was established to rebel against the highly bureaucratic government in Uruguay, at a time when the country was experiencing high unemployment and inflation, as well as a steep decline in its standard of living. The Tupamaros’ initial acts of resistance included robbing banks and businesses, and then distributing the stolen funds to the poor. Eventually, the political movement culminated in increasingly violent acts such as political kidnappings and assassinations. In 1973, a military junta began to exercise power behind-the-scenes, with the allegedly fraudulently elected president, Juan María Bordaberry, acting as a figurehead leader, but by 1976 the military had removed Bordaberry from office. The repressive military regimes specifically targeted the radical Tupamaros, murdering and imprisoning many of their leaders on charges of being leftist insurgents.

Upon the country’s restoration of democracy in 1985, the Tupamaros evolved into a political party known as the Movimiento de Participación Popular (MPP), which eventually joined the FA coalition. The FA was established shortly before the military takeover in 1971 and fundamentally emulates a social democratic style of governance. The coalition is comprised of several institutional center-leftist parties who offer a politically socialist agenda. Moreover, these center-left parties have not only engendered the unfaltering support of labor unions, but have also been fully integrated into a pluralistic and competitive party system.

Jorge Lanzaro, a professor at the Political Science Institute at the University of the Republic in Uruguay, and a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, emphasized that, in contrast to other leftist governments in the region, such as radical Venezuela and Bolivia, Uruguay boasts a left government with functioning and competitive political parties. Moreover, despite the Tupamaros’ historically revolutionary beliefs, they now have a more moderate ideology. This is evidenced by the current government’s emphasis on social inclusion programs for the underprivileged, as well as economic prosperity built on a free market system. Similar to social democracies in Europe, although not as well funded and as successfully implemented, Uruguay’s social democracy is a proponent of the welfare state: everyone theoretically receives free education, healthcare, and other government-provided social services.

For the first twenty years following the dictatorship, Uruguay’s two traditional political parties, the Partido Nacional and the Colorados, both established in the 1800s, overshadowed the FA. However, that changed in 2005 when Vázquez became the first president in the nation’s history who did not belong to either of the traditional parties, marking a significant victory for the FA and the social democrats. Ever since, the FA has steadily gained popularity. In addition to the presidential seat, the coalition currently holds a majority in both houses of congress.

Mujica: Moderate Social Reformer or Populist Leader?

Mujica, now 74 years old, was an early actor in the revolutionary Tupamaros. Due to Mujica’s integral involvement with the Tupamaros, as well as the oppressive nature of the military regime that emerged in 1973, he was imprisoned for 14 years. Since the country’s restoration to democracy and Mujica’s subsequent release from prison, he has played a decisive role on the Uruguayan political stage. He served for several years in the senate and also held the position of Minister of Livestock and Agriculture during Vazquez’s presidency. Like Vázquez, Mujica is popular among the poor and working classes for his proposed efforts to improve the standard of living through the implementation of Vazquez-style domestic and economic reforms.

During the FA’s primary elections, Mujica’s campaign was slightly more to the left than it has been in recent months. However, despite the opposition’s attempts to use Mujica’s radical past to paint him as a Chávez-style populist strongman, such portrayals have only proven to be counter-productive. Mujica’s strategy of distancing himself from the Venezuelan leader and his inflammatory rhetoric was key to positioning himself closer to the center than to the left, and in securing the win.

During the initial round of voting in October, Mujica failed to receive an absolute majority vote, which is required for immediate election, thus necessitating a run-off election in November. Mujica, in an attempt to garner popular support, further emphasized his proposed continuance of Vázquez’s reforms as a maneuver to separate his policies from those of Chavez, thus reassuring undecided and skeptical voters. He dismissed Chávez’s 21st Century Socialism as “a lot of bureaucracy.” Nonetheless, the Venezuelan government praised his election: “This historic victory of the left ratifies that the destiny of the Uruguayans continues to be of equality and social justice, and consolidates the large wave of transformation, dignity and sovereignty that is crossing our Latin America and the Caribbean, making the time of the peoples more and more irreversible.” While Mujica is not committed to socialist economic reforms like the Venezuelan leader, Chávez and other more moderate regional leaders have praised Mujica’s dedication to social inclusion.

According to Professor Lanzaro, in the event that Mujica did plan to implement populist, Chávez-fashion reforms, the strength of the FA would make it extremely difficult to accomplish this. The FA coalition, the majority part in both congress and the senate, has a relatively diverse composition, ranging from communists to moderates, that create an internal balance of power. Essentially, the coalition itself moderates Mujica’s possible policy reforms. As a result, it is likely that Mujica’s administration will seek only moderate reforms in the manner of Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Chile’s Michelle Bachelet.

Vazquez’s Successful Domestic Policies

President Vázquez implemented highly successful social and economic reforms that resulted in his high approval ratings. Despite overwhelming popular support for Vázquez, the Uruguayan constitution forbids consecutive re-election. Vázquez implemented a series of highly successful economic reforms under the guidance of his Minister of Economy and Finance, Danilo Astori. Astori’s reforms were not only successful in improving the standard of living for the average Uruguayan, but also in significantly sheltering Uruguay from the full shock of the global recession.

Unlike the nationalist economic policies that Chávez pursues, Vázquez enacted neoliberal economic reforms comparable to those implemented in Chile, Peru, and Brazil. Such economic reforms resulted in many positive changes for the Uruguayan population. Uruguay’s GDP per capita rose from $6,000 in 2005 to and estimated $10,000 in 2009, with a real GDP growth of 7 percent at the end of year 2008. The economic reform campaign also resulted in an increased flow of foreign investment as exports more than doubled from $3.5 billion in 2005 to $7 billion in 2008, before it slightly declined due to the global recession. Foreign investment has started to rise again and it currently stands at $6.5 billion according to statistics from November 2009.

These macro-level economic reforms also improved Uruguayan’s job opportunities and standard of living. For example, the unemployment rate steadily declined from over 13% in 2005 to 6.4% in November of this year. Vázquez also successfully reduced the poverty rate from 32% in 2004 to 20%, and the percentage of people living in extreme poverty fell from 4% to 1.5%. Another success is the ambitious “Plan Ceibal,” which aimed to provide one laptop with internet connection to every primary student and teacher in the country’s public education system. The plan will soon expand to secondary school students as well.

Given this incredible economic success, Vázquez would surely have been a contender in the recent election. According to Arturo Porzecanski, Professor of International Finance at American University, Vázquez’s economic reforms created a “good” economic backdrop during Mujica’s campaign. Although the Uruguayan economy experienced a slight lapse in the first quarter of 2009, the IMF reported in November that it “has held up considerably well in the face of the global recession.” As Porzecanski further points out, at the time of the elections the economy was on an upswing, which in turn pushed economic worries to the backburner when Uruguayans went to the booths.

Mujica’s Uruguay

Mujica ran with a presidential platform based on the successes of Vázquez and reassured the public that he would continue these policies. Political analysts believe that Mujica’s government will essentially be no more than an extension of Vázquez’s governance, but with a specific focus on education, energy, environment, and public security. However, Mujica’s pronounced intentions of maintaining a steady economic course are also of high importance. Danilo Astori, who is now Mujica’s vice president, is likely to provide a political balance since he does not belong to the Tupamaros, but rather to another faction of the FA. Serving as Vazquez’s economic advisor has provided Astori with substantial knowledge and experience in economic reforms. He will continue to ensure the steady progress of the country’s economy, which is largely based on agriculture and beef exports, an economy that has grown by 7% since the election of Vázquez.

For the most part, Mujica faces a largely successful economic legacy. However, progress remains to be made and Mujica will face some challenges on the economic front. One such obstacle to tackle will be inflation. According to the IMF, inflation dropped from 14% in 2004 to a projected 7% in 2009; however, Uruguay claims the second highest inflation rate in South America and the third highest in the hemisphere. Another economic challenge facing Mujica will be the country’s dependency on the somewhat unpredictable economy of its largest trading partner, neighboring Argentina. For instance, Argentina’s debt crisis in 2001 severely affected Uruguay’s economy because the latter was highly dependent on the former’s imports and also because the economic crisis in Argentina created a run on the banks that extended to Uruguay. Under the leadership of Mujica, Uruguay might decide to relax its dependency on Argentina and focus on further strengthening its already strong trading relationship with its more stable northern neighbor, Brazil.

In terms of Mujica’s foreign relations, policy will most likely remain the same. Vazquez’s government primarily was committed to a concern for domestic policies, with a minimal foreign agenda. However, Mujica will likely be pragmatic in terms of foreign policy and continue to strengthen its relationship with MERCOSUR (Southern Cone Common Market), which is also comprised of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. Given Mujica’s alignment with Lula, it is probable that he will stand by his Brazilian mentor in regards to foreign relations, as well as behind UNASUR (Union of Southern American States) in regards to regional integration.

Although the election of Mujica represents a consolidation of the FA, it does not present a significant political shift for the country. Uruguay will most likely continue down the path of moderate reforms that have yielded relative economic prosperity and progress over the past five years. Perhaps the biggest change will be the shift in targeted reforms, such as energy, as imported oil is expensive and hydroelectricity is not reliable. Given Mujica’s intention to build upon and improve both the neoliberal principles propelling Uruguay’s economy and the social programs catered to the marginalized and underprivileged sectors of the population, his administration will most likely continue to generate a satisfied public and maintain the high approval ratings generated under Vázquez. Mujica’s win is another illustration of the continuing trend in Latin America towards leftist-reformists who are dedicated to the improvement of social and economic conditions in the region.