Will Uruguay join the Chavez axis?

world | Nov 23, 2009 | By Luis Fleishman

As in Honduras, Uruguayans will go to the polls to elect a new president on Sunday November 29. The most likely candidate to win the elections is Jose Mujica, a leader of the former guerilla movement “Tupamaros” and a likely ally of Hugo Chavez. However, before reaching conclusions, it is important to understand the characteristics of this small country in order to evaluate the situation correctly.

Uruguay is a small country sitting as a buffer between Argentina and Brazil.

Uruguay evolved differently than neighboring Argentina. While in Argentina, Perón ruled undemocratically, Uruguay maintained a vibrant democracy which continued until its collapse in 1973. Uruguay also established a benevolent state early in the twentieth century aimed at preventing class conflict by redistributing goods and providing employment. The state later expanded its economic activities by creating their own companies. Thus, state bureaucracy grew under the multi-tasking role of the government as an entrepreneur and an employer. Political democracy and social welfare led to Uruguay becoming known as “The Switzerland of South America.”

Later, as the economy began to collapse and the state was unable to deliver the goods, discontent also grew. Left-wing and guerilla activism led to an increasing militarization of government. In consequence, from 1973 until 1985 Uruguay was ruled by a rigid military dictatorship that forced thousands into prison and exile. However, since 1985 it has evolved into a steady and stable democracy despite serious times of economic hardship. Contrary to Argentina, the political discourse in Uruguay is polite and political campaigns take place respectfully and uneventfully.

Uruguay has been ruled for most of its existence by two traditional parties; the Blanco and the Colorado. Then in 2004, a new political force called the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) won the presidential election under the leadership of Tabaré Vazquez, an accomplished oncologist and a former Mayor of Montevideo.

The Government of the Broad Front (FA)

The Frente Amplio (FA) is a coalition of factions which include socialists, the former Tupamaro guerilla movement, Communists, Christian democrats, and others. The party's rise to power came at a time of high economic turmoil. As a result of the 1999 Brazilian economic crisis and later as a result of the collapse of the Argentinean economy in 2001 and the overall deterioration of the global markets, Uruguay faced one of the worst crises in its history. Argentina and Brazil constitute close to 50 percent of Uruguay's foreign trade and 90 percent of its tourism industry. In addition, the devaluation of both countries' currency significantly diminished the ability of Uruguayan products to compete in the world market.

The government of the FA was generally not radical. Despite the introduction of some social programs for the poor, the restoration of collective bargaining, and tax increases, the FA government, unlike the government of Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia did not undergo a process of radicalization. Except for tax policy, the capitalistic system itself remained intact. Foreign investment was encouraged and the democratic rules of the game were fully respected.

The Relationship to Chavez and the United States

As with other countries in the region, Hugo Chavez also tried to expand his influence in Uruguay. He helped in the recovery of factories that either closed down or entered a situation of near bankruptcy. Most of these factories converted into coops or factories that were owned and managed by the workers themselves. Venezuela also signed a number of agreements with Uruguay which strengthened ties between the two countries by cooperating in areas such as energy, agriculture, housing, mining and commerce. Following these agreements, trade between the two countries quadrupled. Uruguay also joined Telesur, a South American TV network modeled after Al Jezeera. This network was created by Venezuela in conjunction with Cuba, Argentina and Uruguay with the purpose of expanding ideas aimed at counteracting the cultural influence of the U.S.

Despite the traditional anti-imperialism of the FA, the FA government also pursued trade with the United States in order to market Uruguayan products. The U.S. continues to be Uruguay's largest trading partner as the former imports $1.8 billion in goods from the latter. In spite of this, there were anti-American protests at the time of President George W. Bush's visit to Uruguay that Chavez helped to organize.

An attempt to sign a free trade agreement between the two countries was supported mainly by Finance Minister, Danilo Astori. However, opposition within the party aborted such attempts, as the discussion remained purely ideological and unrelated to the economic benefits such an agreement might bring. Yet, economic growth and stability have made the Vazquez government into the most popular in modern Uruguayan history.

However, like every moderate left government in Latin America, the FA government was not free of ambiguities. On the one hand, it did not fall under the petro-spell of Mr. Chavez despite the fact that Uruguay is totally dependent on foreign oil. On the other hand, it is under this government that Iran established an embassy in Montevideo encouraged by the Uruguayan Vice-President. Apparently, he wanted to expand and strengthen relations with the Iranian government with no reflection on its terrorist nature.

Coincidentally, it was also during the years 2005 to 2008 that 141 Iranian citizens entered Uruguay. Uruguayan intelligence estimates that many of these Iranians might have been seeking refuge in Uruguay because they may have been sought by law enforcement in other countries. Likewise, intelligence sources reported that two Iranians tried to enter the facilities of the largest electrical plant in the country on the day the Israeli Ambassador visited the building. The Police did not arrest any suspects. However, the presence of Iranians in the country is definitely problematic, as they might be involved in terrorist or drug trafficking activities. That there is now an Iranian Embassy in the country, welcomed by the FA government, is part of Iran's expansion in Latin America, which they could use to promote terrorist and drug related activities.

The 2009 Elections

The winner of the Uruguayan presidential elections on October 25, 2009 was Jose Mujica, a candidate for the FA. However, Mujica received a little more than 47 percent of the vote. Therefore, a run-off will take place on November 29th. The second candidate is Luis Lacalle, who in the October elections received a little over 28 percent of the votes. It is assumed that Mujica will be the winning candidate in the run-off.

Jose Mujica is the leader of Tupamaros, a former guerilla movement that morphed into a political faction within the FA. The Tupamaros is a movement initially influenced by the Cuban revolution and Guevarismo which sought to achieve socialism through armed struggle. However, in contrast to the Argentinean “Montoneros,&rdquo they were considerably less violent. Yet, they caused sufficient concern as to generate a strong reaction that transformed Uruguay into an authoritarian regime. During the military dictatorship, Mujica was imprisoned for almost 15 years under the threat of execution if the Tupamaros were to resume their guerilla activities. The Tupamaros joined the electoral process after democracy was restored in 1985 and currently constitute the majority sector of the FA. Mujica might well be the first guerilla leader to become President after Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega.

During the Vazquez government he was minister of Livestock and Agriculture.

Mujica is perceived as a more radical candidate. Mujica's electoral campaign was aimed at calming the fears of the center-left. He stated that he supports a reformist and not revolutionary policy following the model of Brazilian President, Luis Inázio Lula Da Silva. He promised to continue the work of his predecessor, including the continuation of foreign investments and appointed pro-American former Finance Minister, Danilo Astori as his vice-presidential candidate. He stated that negotiation is always the path to follow to solve conflicts and sees the private sector as a producer of goods. He claims that he regrets having been involved in violence in the past even though such violence “was justified.”

However, there are several problems to be taken seriously. Mujica has stated, with admiration, that Chavez has had very successful social programs. By the same token, he abstained from commenting on Chavez's violations of democratic rules and liberties. Mujica described Chavez's Venezuela as “a great country” (país de locura) and stated that he has good feelings for Chavez. He also promised to deepen relations with Chavez because Uruguay is heavily dependent on foreign oil and Venezuela needs Uruguayan milk.

Most importantly, the Tupamaros is a member of the Congreso Bolivariano de los Pueblos, an umbrella organization run by Chavez to reach out to different parties, social movements and grassroots organizations across the continent whose purpose is to spread Chavez's Bolivarian message. Furthermore, Mujica spoke about the possibility of a constitutional reform to deal with changes in private and land property. Mujica did not specify much, but if the idea is to get advice from Chavez, we may well face an authoritarian situation in Uruguay as has been happening in Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua.

Likewise, during the electoral campaign, reports emerged about possible funding coming from Venezuela for Mujica. According to these reports, books were sold to Venezuela for $32 million. The sale was made through a company owned by a family member of Mujica's wife. Suspicions arose because the value of the sale has been estimated to be no more than $500,000—60 times less than the amount received from Venezuela. There are reasons to believe that the company served as a vehicle to funnel money from Chavez to Mujica.

Some Reflections

Whether Mujica will join Venezuela and the Chavista countries of Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua is an extremely important question. However, Mujica seems to be a man of many contradictions and, therefore, raises concerns. Has his talk about continuity been a strategic devise to appeal to moderates while fully intending to pursue radical policies once he assumes office? Is the appointment of Danilo Astori a public relations mask which may place Astori as a figurehead just as Daniel Ortega did with his non-Sandinista vice president in Nicaragua?

However, what is more worrisome is his suspected closeness to Hugo Chavez. Mujica may well deserve the benefit of the doubt but his government needs to be monitored. An alliance with Chavez is eventually another curse for the continent as it is likely to be followed by undemocratic practices and an Iranian penetration, this time giving Iran a new strategic position in a country located relatively far away from Venezuela. Yet, Uruguay has a solid democratic tradition and vibrant civil society which may offer resistance to the Chavisation of the country.

In that case, Mujica could act as the Kirchners have in Argentina. It could be that Mujica will be part of Chavez's sphere of influence without formally being part of ALBA or any other formal Chavista group.

Under Mujica, there might be an expansion of offices of the Bolivarian circles and of ALBA.

Likewise, it might be easier for Iran to increase its presence in Uruguay. The Iranian Embassy will have more freedom to act and consequently there will be greater potential for an increase in terrorist and/or criminal activity. Likewise, Uruguay's well-known secrecy banking laws might be used by Iran to avoid international sanctions.

There have also been reports of Bolivian coca producers using Uruguayan ports to export drugs. Uruguay offered Bolivia use of its ports and President Vazquez has also supported the elimination of the prohibition of consumption of the coca leaf. It is likely that Mujica will deepen this path and thus some problematic activities might expand. If Uruguayan ports become centers of drug shipment it will represent a serious problem for the United States. 

Luis Fleischman is Senior Advisor for the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy in Washington D.C and an adjunct professor of Sociology and Political Science at Florida Atlantic University, Harriet Wilkes Honors College. He writes for The Cutting Edge News. 



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