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The international headlines all read something to the effect of, “In Uruguay: Ex-Guerrilla Fighter

Headed For Run-off Vote in November.” Attention-grabbing, it is, but it doesn't do justice to the
amazing and complex story behind this ex-guerrilla fighter being on the verge of becoming Uruguay's
next president. This story is one that intertwines plot lines of economic hardship's drive toward anger,
social inequity's call to action, violence's inevitable escalation, democracy's slide into dictatorship,
impunity's lingering pain, and a society's tremendous ability to progress through it all with integrity and
pride. It is a heroic epic about cultural mindsets, difficult lessons learned, suppression of expression,
and the perseverance of ideas. And it illustrates several timely lessons that the world would greatly
benefit from learning, as the present economic situation requires astute understanding of the links
between economic justice, the use of violence, and the upholding of, or rather, the straying away from,
democratic principles.

José Mujica, the leftist Frente Amplio's presidential candidate, won 47.5% of the vote on Sunday,
October 25, in a nation where around 90% of the citizens vote, so this number truly does reflect the will
of the people of Uruguay. But the law requires “50% + 1 vote” for victory in these elections, so Mujica
will face his challenger, Luis Alberto Lacalle, of the National Party, who won 28.5% of the vote, in the
upcoming runoff election. Supporters of the Colorado Party are not as conservative as the Nationals
are, but will likely vote to oust the ruling coalition of leftists, having won 16.7% of the votes, while the
Independents and “Others” will provide the deciding 7.3% of votes in November. The hurdle is not
high for the Frente Amplio, but the numbers are extremely close. Mujica must show himself to be
presidential, despite his cardigan sweaters, his off-the-cuff remarks, and his workingman's mannerisms.

Hurdles were altitudinous, though, for Mujica to get to the position he has already achieved. He was a
farmer when he joined the Tupamaro movement back in the early 1960's. The Tupamaros were a
coalition of the Movimiento de Apoyo al Campesino, the Peasant Support Movement, and urban trade
unions, with the slogan, “Worlds divide us; action unites us.” Their initial actions were to rob banks
and wealthy businesses and pass the loot out in the poor neighborhoods of Montevideo, Uruguay's
single large city. They were responding to the economic difficulties that had been widening the gap
between the wealthy and the working class, who had been suffering through the combination of high
inflation and mass unemployment since the late 1950's, while student uprisings and labor unrest were
not bringing about any policy initiatives that might help. The band of twentieth-century Robin Hoods
grew in power and strength as poverty continued to plague the nation. Buy 1965, they were so
successful at embarrassing the government that the US “Office of Public Safety” was brought to
Uruguay to dissipate the civil unrest by training the police and intelligence forces in torture and crowd
control techniques.

In 1967, a new president immediately took actions that exacerbated this situation, planting the seed
from which the reign of the subsequent 17 years of brutal state repression grew. He first institute price
and wage freezes, trying to combat the high inflation, which led to increased labor disputes. This, in
turn, led the president to declare a “state of emergency,” followed by the repealing of constitution
safeguards, the brutal repression of demonstrations, the imprisonment of political dissidents, and the
furthering of the use of torture during interrogations. It was only after this dramatic increase in the
level of state brutality that the Tupamaros adopted more violent tactics, such as kidnappings and
engaging in armed battle with police forces. The president then declared all out martial law for nine
months, only to re-impose it a few months after ending it when the public response to Nelson
Rockefeller's visit to the country turned violent.

A truce was declared in 1971 between the Tupamaros and the government, so that peaceful elections
could be held. The president, who was attempting to change the constitution to allow himself to run for
a second term, was opposed by not only by the long-standing opposition to his Colorado Party, the
National Party, but by a new coalition of left-wing groups, including socialists, communists, trade
unions, and advocates for the poor, including the Tupamaros. It was the birth of the Frente Amplio,
which represented an honest effort by guerrilla fighters and other agitators to become legitimized by
the democratic process – a turn from violent and destabilizing tactics toward working for peaceful

But not only did the ruling parties feel threatened by this new leftist coalition. As the documents that
were recently declassified by the United States National Archives unveil, US President Richard Nixon
asked Brazil's de facto president, Garrastazú Médici, in a series of direct, secret conversations, to
intervene in the Uruguayan elections with US aid, using covert actions, to make sure that the Frente
Amplio would not win. These discussions were part of a wider-ranging secret pact between the two
presidents to combat communist movements throughout Latin America. And although the documents
were only recently released, suspicions about untoward involvement by the US against the leftists have
for a long time colored the Uruguayan view of the US as empire more than as shining beacon of
morality and democracy.

The president's bid for a second term failed, but his hand-picked successor won the elections, under
very suspicious circumstances. He further suspended civil liberties, broke the pact, bringing in the
army to police the country, appointed military officers to many top government positions, then meekly
bowed to military pressure to act as the figurehead of a bloodless military coup d'état, under which he
altogether dissolved Congress, suspended the Constitution, and outlawed the Frente Amplio. The
regime would remain in power, with a large number of political dissidents in horrible prisons and many
other Uruguayos fleeing the country, lasting for more than one long, harsh decade.

In 1984, after all pretenses at a civilian presidency had fallen by the wayside and a military general had
been appointed as president, massive protests and a general strike finally convinced the military to cede
their power and reestablish a civilian, electoral democracy. The Frente Amplio reemerged, but had far
to go to rebuild the coalition. The newly elected Colorado Party president decided that it would be best
to move the country forward and not prosecute the military officials who were known to have
committed grave human rights violations, establishing a law of amnesty that is more popularly known
today as the “Law of Impunity.” The repeal of this law was, in fact, one of the ballot issues voted upon
along with the presidential elections. Despite Uruguay's Supreme Court having ruled the law to be
unconstitutional only days before the election, it's repeal was voted down by the people of Uruguay.
The wounds still haunt the nation, but perhaps two decades is too late to try to heal these wounds.
Apparently, many Uruguayans do not want to re-open them after they have learned to live with them
for so long.

The next period, leading up to the elections of 2004, saw the traditional Colorado and National Parties
alternately vying for power and supporting each other against the Frente Amplio, who gained 40% of
the seats in each house of parliament, thus breaking the hold of the two-party system that had been in
place since the earliest days of the nascent nation. The proud Uruguayans have a distinct distaste for
the pressures of imperialists and empires. They are able to see the hypocrisy of the United States,
having experienced first hand its repressive influence on their citizens, suspecting intervention in their
electoral processes, seeing the support given to brutal dictatorship, and afterward, resisting their push
toward “free market capitalism,” which the culture of Uruguay is largely able to see for what it is, a
marketing scheme to allow the wealthy classes to rule with their own impunity, without the need for
repression and torture. And so, they were able to keep their traditional political parties and the
influence of the US and its international corporations upon them in check. And it was in 2004 when the
Frente Amplio finally ascended to the presidency.

The president of Uruguay is barred from holding office for two terms in a row, and so the ruling party's
José Mujica followed through the primary process and was elected to become the ruling Frente
Amplio's candidate for the presidency. He stresses his humble origins and is apt to speak his mind. He
has only a high-school education, and spent 14 years in prison during the military dictatorship, paying
dearly for having help found the Tupamaro movement. Yet he was able to gain a seat in the Senate, and
then became the Minister of Livestock, Agriculture, and Fisheries under President Tabaré Vázquez. He
claims he wishes to follow in the the mold of Brazil's president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who also has
a humble background, and has focused on addressing the immense poverty in Brazil with promising
results as well as taking a pragmatic approach to attracting foreign investment and macromanaging the
economy, while Mujica's political enemies try to paint him as another crazy Chávez-like character.

The truth of the matter is that the Frente Amplio lowered the unemployment rate by about half as well
as moving the percentage of people classified as poor from 35 to 20 percent since 2002, according to
government figures. And according to opinion polls, Vazquéz enjoys an approval rating of 60%, a
testament to this doctor's prescription of taxing the wealthy to finance social programs such as low-
income housing and health-care expansion. His party has brought the nation through the opening
stages of the world economic crisis with a steady hand, as Uruguay now stands as one of the most
stable, least corrupt, most economically developed, economically free nations in Latin America. This is
the beginning of a long-awaited experiment in joining socialism with democracy, and although the
wealthy may grumble, the reality is that, when the poor and working class vastly outnumber the
wealthy, and they are given real opportunities to engage in the democratic process, well, they will
probably ask the wealthiest members of society to share some of the bounty of that society's
production. It is a matter of social justice, and the entire society does actually benefit from a strong
infrastructure as well as citizenry. Furthermore, dealing with social chaos through militancy is not only
dangerous for democracy, but in the end, it is very costly.

Uruguay's story, the Frente Amplio's story, and Mujica's story, together, comprise a lesson in
perseverance of the idea of socialism, a fire that engulfed Latin America with the force of Argentina's
own, the iconic, Che Guevara, but which was snuffed out when the movement became most dangerous
to the ruling classes, that is, when it tried to become a legitimate political party in Uruguay, and its
influence was feared by Capitalists, Christians, and Conservatives of the West who saw themselves as
individualists and socialism as state tyranny upon individual rights.

The Uruguayan author, Eduardo Galeano, recently said, “We believe that our country has shown in the
first years of the Frente Amplio Party being in office that we are no longer that country that was
paralyzed by fear.” He was speaking at a rally in support of the repeal of the Law of Impunity, but he
was also referring to Uruguay's struggle with repression that came about because of this fear of how
socialism would change society. Instead of trying to meet the needs of the impoverished people, who
rose up in anger and pain to let their voices be heard, instead of understanding the message that the
Tupamaros were trying to send, about social inequity, fear led Uruguay's elites down a dark and
disdainful path, of escalating violence, met by escalating state repression, into the depths of military
junta hell.

And yet, not only a strong democracy, but useful socialist ideas flourish anew, vanquishing the illusion
that socialism and democracy are mutually exclusive. Uruguay's story is ultimately one of hope. This
hope is scripted in a different kind of narrative than that which is accepted as truth in countries like the
United States, where “free market capitalism” is so closely associated with freedom and democracy.
Uruguay's story challenges this association, and this story offers a big message from a little country.
Uruguay owns a cultural heritage that embraces art, music, poetry, and thoughtfulness (the Uruguayan
thousand peso note depicts the cherished poet, Juana de Ibareouro, on one side and her library of books
on the other). With this kind of mindset, Uruguayos are able to synthesize complexity in a way that
allows ideas to sprout, grow, mingle together, and mature, like a nice Uruguayan wine, a hearty Tannat,
perhaps. This, combined with their fiercely independent spirit, upon which the nation of Uruguay was
founded, that desire for self-rule over which they fought the Argentines, allows the Uruguayos to
discern the difference between setting up socialist programs within a democratic system, with checks
and balances, that can work to create a healthy nation for all, versus the tyrannical and corrupt
caricature of socialism that can occur when real democracy is not joined with it, as is the case with both
Hugo Chávez and Argentina's Peronistas. And the Uruguayos, because of their dark slide into what
was essentially a fascist dictatorship, can understand that democracy is not to be taken for granted.

What is possible and what is not is not for anyone to definitively declare, as what is real and what is
fantastic share a broad and blurry boundary – this is the Latin American experience.