Uruguay: Another Center-Left Victory

By Aaron Bell

Frente Amplio Uruguay / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Frente Amplio Uruguay / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

The Frente Amplio (FA) emerged from Sunday’s general elections in Uruguay looking stronger than observers had forecast – and signaling Latin Americans’ confidence in the center-left.  Despite a rough campaign season, which included polls showing the FA’s support stuck in the low 40s, and public sniping between the party’s leaders – candidate Tabaré Vázquez and current president José Mujica – just days before the election, the FA gained last-minute momentum in the polls and won 47.9 percent of the vote.  As expected, Vázquez received less than the outright majority needed to avoid a second round of voting on November 30 against the candidate of the Partido Nacional (PN), Luis Lacalle Pou, who won 31 percent of the vote.  But the FA preserved its majority in the lower chamber of parliament, and it can have the edge in the senate if Vázquez wins in November, as his vice president, Raúl Séndic, would hold the deciding vote.  The Partido Colorado (PC) candidate, Pedro Bordaberry, won only 12.9 percent of the vote and placed third in every department.

The elections revolved around Vázquez and Lacalle Pou’s leadership identity and policies; neither candidate argued for substantial structural changes.  In exit interviews, those who voted for the FA credited it with positive changes in its decade at the helm.  The 41-year-old Lacalle Pou has run as a youthful leadership alternative to the 74-year-old former president Vázquez, and he promised fresh ideas for taking on crime and education, considered leading concerns for Uruguayan voters.  While exit interviews suggest that this message appealed to his party’s voters, it did not translate into substantial youth support.  Polling by Factum prior to the election showed that 51 percent of voters aged 18-37 preferred the FA.  Public security has been the leading concern for Uruguayan voters, and both traditional center-right parties, the PN and PC, supported a referendum (also held on Sunday) that would have lowered the age of criminal responsibility for major crimes from 18 to 16.  But long-term polling trends have shown a decrease in the number of Uruguayans prioritizing security from its peak last year, and indeed the referendum failed with 47 percent of the vote; almost the entirety of undecided voters ultimately chose to oppose it.

The FA now has momentum and is well positioned to win the second round and enjoy the support of a parliamentary majority.  A likely PN-PC voting bloc in the second round once held a slight lead over the FA but now appears likely to fall short because of tensions between them.  The PC’s underwhelming performance at the polls has been compounded by Bordaberry’s decision on Sunday night to support Lacalle Pou without consulting PC officials, and his offensive off-the-cuff verbal attack on the Vázquez camp during a conversation with a PN official that same night, for which he has since apologized.  The left-leaning Partido Independiente, which came in fourth place with 3.1 percent of the vote, will make a decision on which candidate to support this week; their votes alone would be enough to push the FA over the top.  As a result, barring a major turn of events, it appears as though the incumbent pink tide will prevail in Uruguay – with implications, perhaps, beyond.  Indeed, a second-round FA victory will be the sixth this year for a left-leaning party, following the pattern set by Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Bolivia, and Brazil.  While the citizenry may be impatient with the pace of progress in Latin America following nearly a decade of left-leaning governance, voters seem to be eschewing the right and maintaining the modestly but consistently leftward tilt that has characterized the region’s politics for much of the 21st century.

October 30, 2014

 

Elections in Uruguay: A Bellwether for the Latin American Left?

By Aaron T. Bell

Photo credit: Frente Amplio (FA) / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Photo credit: Frente Amplio (FA) / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Uruguay’s elections on October 26 – once seen as a sure bet for the ruling Frente Amplio’s presidential candidate, former president Tabaré Vázquez (2005-2010) – have become a tight race, perhaps signaling challenges for other left-leaning Latin American governments as well.  The FA’s slight slip in the polls since the beginning of 2014 has been matched by sustained growth by the Partido Nacional, led by Luis Lacalle Pou, the son of a former president.  While Vázquez still holds a ten-point lead, he’s well below the absolute majority needed to avoid a run-off election, whose numbers look even bleaker for the ruling party.  In February, Lacalle Pou was running twenty-five points behind Vázquez in a head-to-head matchup, but the latest polls now show him only two points back.  Lacalle Pou will need the support of his party’s long-time rival, the Colorado Party, to win a second round against the FA, but Colorado candidate Pedro Bordaberry has thus far refused to concede the first round to the PN despite trailing them by 17 points.  Nonetheless, Vázquez was defeated by just such a second-round alliance in 1999.  Complicating things for him, polling strongly suggests that FA could lose control of both houses of the national legislature this fall.

The Lacalle Pou campaign has focused on public security and education.  Uruguay’s homicide rate remains one of the lowest in the region, but a modest increase in crime in recent years has spurred both urban and rural Uruguayans to rank security as the principal problem facing the nation – well ahead of the second leading concern, education.  The October elections will coincide with a referendum on lowering the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 for serious offensives, with polls showing Uruguayans closely divided but leaning toward approval.  On the education front, the FA’s Plan Ceiba has helped provide laptops to every student, but 2012 assessment data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development still place Uruguay’s students well below the international average in math, science, and reading.

The FA’s political situation is paradoxical: it has presided over major socioeconomic improvements in the last decade and won international acclaim, but earned a more tepid response at home.  Uruguay’s decision to legalize marijuana was widely celebrated abroad as a step toward a more progressive drug policy in the region, but polls continue to show that a majority of Uruguayans oppose legalization, and it has not won the FA much support even among proponents of cannabis, who have resisted the creation of a registry of buyers.  (Vázquez recently suggested the registry would be used to develop rehabilitation programs.)  The FA seems to have not yet figured out how to respond effectively to the perception of insecurity, nor has it overseen a decided improvement in education, which is central to long-term development prospects.  With Brazil’s Partido dos Trabalhadores facing an uncertain future, and political crises in Argentina and Venezuela simmering, the FA may be the first case of a larger regional rollback of the first wave of 21st century leftwing movements.

September 30, 2014

Mujica’s Liberal Experiment: Model for the Latin American Left?

By Robert Albro

President José Mujica on stage with SIS Dean James Goldgeier

President José Mujica on stage with SIS Dean James Goldgeier

Uruguayan President José “Pepe” Mujica, whose recent trip to Washington included a stop at American University, is doubtless Latin America’s most unconventional president.  A former leftist guerrilla who spent 14 years in prison, Mujica gives away 90 percent of his salary, refuses to live in the presidential mansion, grows chrysanthemums, and has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.  He was elected in 2009 as candidate of the center-left Frente Amplio, and his accomplishments have transformed him into an international figure – and turned Uruguay into an intriguing experiment in social liberalism.  He has avoided the populist tendencies and overt anti-Americanism of other Latin American leftists, while promoting programs of social inclusion alongside a pro-business economic agenda.  Under Mujica, Uruguay has enacted an affirmative action law, legalized abortion in the first trimester, and legalized gay marriage. Most discussed has been his administration’s controversial launch this year of a legal government-licensed and -regulated marijuana market.

Mujica is notably less popular at home than abroad, however.  After plunging to 36 percent in late 2012, his approval rating has since hovered around 47 percent.  With national elections (in which he cannot run) looming in October, a poll last month showed the Frente Amplio losing significant ground to the opposition.  Mujica has consistently dismissed the polls.  He went ahead with legalizing pot, for example, despite a September 2013 poll indicating that 63 percent of Uruguayans still did not support the measure.  His asylum offer for up to six Guantanamo detainees, based on humanitarian concerns, has also not been popular, with only 23 percent of Uruguayans approving.  Uruguay ranks among the safest countries in the Americas, with 5.9 homicides per 100,000 people, and yet the perception of insecurity is widespread.  In a 2012 poll 56 percent of Uruguayans still reported crime and violence to be the country’s most pressing problem.  If celebrated by advocates of social liberalism, Mujica’s policy measures often appear out of kilter with popular perceptions and priorities.

Mujica is often cited as offering a potential alternative to the Bolivarian brand of “21st century socialism.”  But, in what is arguably Latin America’s most socially liberal country, the former Marxist has governed as a pragmatist.  Uruguay has a lot going for it, including: a stable banking system, free and secular education, low levels of corruption and social inequality, robust press freedoms, and stable governance with functional political parties.  It is second in South America behind Argentina on International Living’s quality of life index.  It has the third highest GDP per capita – triple that of Ecuador and Bolivia – and under Mujica has sustained stable economic and wage growth, and increased foreign investment in farming, forestry and pulp mills.  However, while he gets points for his international celebrity, austere lifestyle, and colorful persona, Mujica risks alienating the many citizens who care more about unemployment, inflation, crime and insecurity than about the environment, cannabis and gay marriage.  It is not clear whether over time Uruguayans will support Mujica’s particular left-liberal pragmatic brand of governance and whether his is a model embraced by other Latin American leaders. 

Political Participation in Latin America Expanding

participatory democracy coverFrom local citizen initiatives to national referenda, mechanisms of direct political participation have been spreading with astonishing vigor throughout Latin America in recent years. Some of these mechanisms are new and unprecedented in the way they involve citizens in politics, such as frequently touted participatory budgeting systems at the municipal level in numerous countries.  Other initiatives, such as the National Policy Conferences that consult the citizenry regarding an array of issues in Brazil, are less widely known. In most Andean countries and to some extent elsewhere, these forms of participation often emerge where established representative institutions, such as party systems, have collapsed, or where legislatures have fallen into disrepute.  Yet they also proliferate alongside strong parties, legislatures, and interest associations, as we see in Brazil and Uruguay.

A recent CLALS-sponsored book* examines these new forms of participation and analyzes when they promote, and when not, the consolidation and deepening of representative institutions. The participatory innovations vary along a number of key dimensions, including how they interact with political parties and established institutions, their focus on collective versus individual rights and, perhaps most importantly, their autonomy from political and economic elites.  These differences and their implications are analyzed in detail in case studies on seven Latin American countries: Bolivia, Brazil, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela.

When new forms of political participation emerge spontaneously and independently – as a natural reaction to an unfulfilled need at a local or national level – their voices are authentic and tend to enhance democratic rule.  Brazil’s National Policy Conferences and Uruguay’s referenda to enhance accountability are examples of the incorporation of new voices in policy formulation – to the benefit of the constituencies driving them and the nation as a whole.  We also find instances where participation has exacerbated and reinforced longstanding patterns of clientelism (including in Mexico and Brazil), and autocratic leaders have sought to create or capture such voices to bypass representative institutions (including in Nicaragua and Venezuela).  A valuable lesson of this research, however, is that, once in place, these spaces may become increasingly autonomous. Venezuela’s community councils are an important case to watch: created to reinforce the Chavista project as defined by the Casa Rosada, they may take on a life of their own when the politicians who sponsored them relinquish their positions of power or pass away.

New Institutions of Participatory Democracy: Voice and Consequence, published by Palgrave Macmillan 2012, resulted from a multi-year project co-organized by CLALS and the University of British Columbia’s Andean Democracy Research Network.  More information on the project can be found here .  (The volume has also been published in Spanish by FLACSO-Mexico, Nuevas instituciones de democracia participativa en América Latina: la voz y sus consecuencias)

Gay Rights Amidst Uneven Cultural Change

The lower chamber of Uruguay’s legislature passed a bill legalizing gay marriage on December 12 that is expected to sail through the Senate. The law, which polls show is supported by a majority of Uruguayans, comes just two months after the country legalized abortion.  Even for Uruguay, long seen as among Latin America’s most progressive and democratic countries, these measures represent a major shift in social attitudes.

MUMS Movimiento de la Diversidad Sexual | Flickr | Creative Commons

MUMS Movimiento de la Diversidad Sexual | Flickr | Creative Commons

Writing in the Journal of Democracy, Bard College political scientist Omar Encarnación argues that the 2005 legalization of gay marriage by Spain’s socialist government was a model for activists and legislators across Latin America. Transnational networks with ties in these cities have led the charge, using human rights language and gaining support from human rights organizations. Evidence in support of his argument is growing:  the city of Buenos Aires and later all of Argentina legalized gay marriage in 2002 and 2010 respectively, as did Mexico City, in 2012.  Where legislatures have not acted because of opposition from religious or other groups, activists have appealed to courts, earning recognition of important civil rights for gay couples in Brazil and Colombia. Progress in the ALBA countries, Chile, and Central America has been more limited still.  Honduras banned gay marriage in 2005. Discrimination, both legal and de facto, remains an issue.

The changes in Uruguay and elsewhere indicate the need for an updated map of Latin America that reflects widely differing approaches to social issues.  Secularism is an emergent force in global metropolises such as Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and São Paulo, and the Catholic Church’s dominant role in the region’s social policy and politics has diminished considerably.  But the decline in the Catholic Church’s power to block gay rights does not mean a continued shift in social norms is inevitable.  Evangelical faiths have exploded in parts of the continent, many of them even more conservative than the Catholic Church in opposing gay rights. Moreover, in countries that lack the strong transnational human rights networks of Argentina and Colombia, activists have fewer tools at their disposal.

U.S. Marijuana Vote Unlikely to Impact Mexico in Short Term

The following is excerpted from an article by InSight Crime* analyst Elyssa Pachico

Photo by: Editor B | Flickr | Creative Commons

Approval last week in Colorado and Washington state of measures allowing the recreational use of marijuana has fueled debate on whether legalization will reduce drug traffickers’ profits and the violence surrounding the illicit narcotics trade.  In both states, ballots passed with comfortable margins of 53 percent (Colorado) and 55 percent (Washington).  The measures legalize personal possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and allow the drug to be legally sold (and taxed) in licensed stores.  A similar initiative failed to pass in Oregon, gaining less than 45 percent of the vote.

A recent study by a Mexican think tank, the Mexican Institute of Competitiveness (IMCO), and Alejandro Hope (an InSight Crime contributor) found that passage of the initiatives in all three states would reduce the revenue of Mexican drug trafficking organizations by as much as 30 percent.  Hope has pointed out on Animal Político, a popular Mexican news site, that the impact will depend on the U.S. federal government’s response.  Attorney General Eric Holder strongly opposed such measures in 2010 when California residents voted on Proposition 19, but he did not issue strong statements this year.  The government’s response to last week’s votes has been muted; according to Reuters, the US Justice Department reacted to the measures by stating that its drug enforcement policy had not changed.

Mexico, a major supplier of marijuana, is unlikely to feel the impact of these measures for a while.  Parts of the Colorado measure will come into effect after 30 days, but the Washington measure will not take effect for a year.  But, over the long term, the votes indicate shifting attitudes towards marijuana prohibition in the United States – on the heels of similar shifts in Latin American countries eager to find alternatives to the current war on drugs.  The presidents of Guatemala, Mexico, and Colombia have emphasized the need for discussions, and Uruguay and Chile have considered their own marijuana legalization bills.  InSight Crime cautions, however, that the drug organizations have proved to be very adaptable in finding new sources of revenue – including methamphetamines, migrant smuggling, and even illegal mining.

Insight Crime is affiliated with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, which produces AULABLOG.   Click here for the full text and additional links. 

FTA Dreaming: Promises to Expand Free Trade in the Hemisphere

Photo by: Starley Shelton | Flickr | Creative Commons

Although Latin America has not been an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney has stated multiple times that he would promote hemispheric trade agreements.  In the second debate, he said, “I’m also going to dramatically expand trade in Latin America. … I want to add more free trade agreements so we’ll have more trade.”  Romney did not specify, however, with which partners he would conclude trade agreements.  (A request to the Romney campaign for more information has not been answered.)  President Barack Obama did not comment on Romney’s promise, suggesting the president’s lack of focus on the region or calculus that voters simply don’t care.  Under Obama, the United States ratified pacts with Colombia and Panama, negotiated during the Bush administration.  The U.S. already had FTAs with Central America and the Dominican Republic, Chile, Mexico, and Peru.

While that would seem to leave a number of large economies, nearly all of them are unlikely partners. The most important remaining economies – Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Paraguay – are part of the Mercosur trading bloc.  Washington has refused to negotiate with them as a group, and the group prohibits members from signing bilateral accords.  Meanwhile, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Cuba, and several Caribbean nations have joined together specifically to counter U.S. proposals for free trade in the hemisphere.  The few remaining countries have tiny trading relations with the United States.

The idea of adding FTAs in Latin America looks quixotic.  Nevertheless, that is hardly an excuse for failing to improve trade relations short of comprehensive agreements.  There are important opportunities to deepen the United States’ most important trade relations with Canada and Mexico, as AU Professor Robert A. Pastor has argued.  Moreover, if the United States is willing to use the Andean Trade Preferences Act as a tool for development instead of a cudgel against Latin Americans it considers wayward, it could expand trade in ways that benefit all parties.  Likewise, trade problems have become outsized irritants in U.S. relations with Brazil and Argentina – to say nothing of the broader implications of U.S. “trade policy” with Cuba.  These problems have largely festered under Obama, and Romney’s promises of free trade agreements do not seem a serious proposal to correct them.