What happened to Uruguay and its Pink Tide?

Is further change possible in Uruguay? Today, the economic situation is less favourable, ideological affinity with other governments in the region is lower, and neighbours have become distant. Español

Rafael Bayce
10 October 2018

Left-wing ex-president of Uruguay, Pepe Mujica. Wikimedia Commons. All Rights Reserved.

This article is part of the series "Persistent inequality: disputing the legacy of the pink tide in Latin America" produced in alliance with the Institute of Latin American Studies and at the Instituite of Sociology of the Freie Universität Berlin.

There are three sources of disempowerment encroaching upon Uruguay’s regional relevance and singularity which result in a decrease in national self-esteem and an exhaustion of its utopian energies.

Number 1 is as follows: Upon accessing power, the left, far from implementing a jubilant, triumph-driven radical discourse, ceased to promise radicalism or to consolidate change.

Instead, they talked about "people-like capitalism", and "capitalism in earnest", as its most charismatic and popular leader, the legendary Pepe Mujica, put it during his second term as President at the head of a Broad Front (FA) government.

Two is as such: The country’s proud sense of self-esteem as an original singularity, originating from as far back as its political-administrative status under the colonial government, has been weakened by the powerful invasion of great narratives of modernity, which have challenged the idea that Uruguay is somehow unique.

The country, which proudly considered itself to be the 'Switzerland of America', and the 'Athens of the Rio de la Plata', which used to think that 'there’s nothing like Uruguay', the small model-country which thought it could carry out social experiments akin to the Welfare State without being dragged down by the weight of old historical conflicts like in Europe.

Ideological globalization reached Uruguay through Communism, Socialism and Anarchism at the beginning of the 20th century; through Third Worldism, Christian Democracy and a first version of developmental neoliberalism in the late 1950s; through Maoism, Trostkyism, Dependentism and Foquismo (Cuban revolutionary ideology) in the 1960s. Thus, the pride in the odd singularity became diluted.

Three is the following: The exercise of the duty of government impedes any expansion of utopias and radical ideologies. The political routine entails concessions, ideological de-radicalization, leadership dominance, distancing from the bases and party bureaucratization.

This is exacerbated by the granting of a ministry to each fraction with a substantive constituency within an increasingly multi-faceted coalition. Short-term tactical manipulation of strategic teleology takes place, and the gentrification of the party correlates with entropy and exhaustion.

Continuity in power is not relinquished to manipulate pragmatic euchronias at elections and in appointments of personal allies to key positions.

Professional surveys conducted immediately after the end of the dictatorship showed the military at the bottom of the ranking; but just a few years later, if a plebiscite were held on the formation of National Guards and their involvement in internal security matters, the majority of the population would probably be in favour.

Four can be summarised as: This entropic exhaustion coexists with a weakening of the ideal of democracy, which Uruguay embodies as a precocious regional model, and a world leader.

Professional surveys conducted immediately after the end of the dictatorship showed the military at the bottom of the ranking; but just a few years later, if a plebiscite were held on the formation of National Guards and their involvement in internal security matters, the majority of the population would probably be in favour. Popular memory is worryingly short. 

The decline of debate in the public sphere

Uruguay lacks, in relative terms, a sense of civil society. It is a State-centred nation, created by a leviathan and demiurge State, and managed within a binary system by two catch-all parties (White and Red), the hegemony of which has been at play for more than 150 years, right until the arrival of the Broad Front as a plausible contender in 1999, and then as a winner in 2004.

Despite the fact that Uruguay is a highly urbanized and demographically concentrated country, the public sphere is not characterized by an ascending and proactive relationship but by a top-down application of decisions, and an inclination towards complaining and threatening electoral punishment than to the kind of criticism that defines a mature democracy.

Plans and programs play a rhetorical role in exhibiting government capacity, but their content is unknown to nearly everybody; their other function is to measure the relative force of different fractions of the coalition on different topics.

The emergence of national and regional public opinion polls produces figures and spreads issues which grant popularity and legitimacy without debate. The media have less and less time for debates, and carry increasingly brief and explosive, less analytical content.

Television time is replacing radio and the written press in building a political spectacle, and social media (Uruguay is the country with the highest internet and social media use in the region) exacerbates the increasing lack of debate and proposals.

Following the trend set by advertising and commercial marketing, politics is rapidly replacing attempts to convince through rhetorical cognitive persuasion, efforts of emotional, poetic seduction.

The political parties, which were born from a struggle between 'caudillos' and 'doctors' and then became parliamentary forces, have been ‘re-caudillizing’ in the last 20 years.

The discovery of attractive leaders allowed the left to abandon its unpopular conceptual elitism in the region. Max Weber’s prophetic fear, in 1917, that democracies could become charismatic populisms, is shining today in all its splendour.

In these times of 'sophisticated' plot developments on Twitter - in 'philosopher king' Trump style -, it is much easier to satisfy than to convince public opinion, and to 'sell' a charismatic candidate rather than a thoughtful ideologue. 

A volatile parliamentary base

This has been, and still is, undoubtedly a governance problem in most countries of the region, especially in those that have a high number of political parties and a federal political and administrative structure.

But in urban concentrated Uruguay in which a unitary system with few relevant parties reins, the Broad Front has always enjoyed the backing of a parliamentary majority, not very large but nevertheless sufficient, except for passing the few laws that do require special majorities.

Its main legislative problems have been internal, endogenous ones: first, when it had to obtain an ad hoc majority because of a dissident in its ranks or someone in Congress seeking to 'sell' his or her agreement.

Second, when the objectives of the classical propositional left, post-fiscally redistributive, clashed with those pursued by younger parliamentarians, a 'young liberal left', which successfully promoted issues such as State regulation of the marijuana cycle, an approach to abortion from the perspective of a reproductive health law, and same-sex marriage.

Young people got away with it but had to support their elders even on issues such as public safety in which the laws passed were shamefully conservative and punitive, especially with regards to minors. The elders also had to vote for 'liberal' rights-based guarantees in exchange, with which they did not agree either.

This exchange of favours produced fragile and laboriously-reached majorities, but the government never had to resort, as in other countries, to ideologically suicidal alliances (such as in Brazil).

When it resorted to calling for a wide agreement on State policies, as in security matters, this was done to disguise its lack of decision to apply really leftist measures: the call to others was not intended to reach any agreement, but to put the blame on others for the lack of inter-party consensus – hypocritical faint-heartedness when you enjoy the support of a majority which does not require you to seek an inter-partisan consensus.

If in other countries, the governments could not carry out what they wished for due to a lack of a sufficient majority, in Uruguay, on the contrary, the FA destroyed its own majority by calling on dissidents to reach an agreement without any real need, then it ran into difficulties with its own majority for endogenous reasons. 

The difficult voter loyalty of the middle classes

One of the most striking recent problems experienced by the left in government (especially in Brazil) has been the insufficient political-electoral loyalty of many beneficiaries of its redistributive policies.

In Uruguay, this has not been the case: many of the 'loaned' votes in 2004 were not lost in 2009 and 2014. There are two main reasons for this:

One. As a candidate, Tabaré Vázquez asked several times for 'borrowed' votes from citizens whom he supposed were probably supporters of the historical majority parties.

The vote for the FA did not always imply ideological affinity, it was often only a punishment vote against the traditional parties due to the string of crises endured, and also a vague hope expressed in the popular dictum: "a new broom always sweeps well".

Although he secretly hoped to conquer and retain them - which is in part what happened - it would not have come as a surprise if some of these votes had eventually gone back to their origin.

The vote for the FA did not always imply ideological affinity, it was often only a punishment vote against the traditional parties due to the string of crises endured, and also a vague hope expressed in the popular dictum: "a new broom always sweeps well".

Added to this was the fact that the blockade of Cuba, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a certain familiar air of the leftist candidates had de-stigmatized the Left.

Two. There are more powerful and comprehensive reasons to understand the regrettable lack of voter loyalty on the part of the beneficiaries of government policy-generated redistribution.

A) We know that there is no coherence between the structural position of class in stratification and the 'situation' of classes in the process of taking concrete decisions.

The conservative distance between both dimensions has been qualified as 'alienated class consciousness', a concept which is perhaps applicable in the case of those who benefited from the government policies of a given party and who now change their vote as post-beneficiaries.

B) At least two other reasons explain that 'alienated' and 'treacherous' infidelity.

B.1) Changing political-electoral interest. In part, people are utilitarian: they pursue their interests without caring much about political allegiances.

The beneficiaries of redistribution who left poverty behind and entered the middle classes, statistically and psychosocially will now vote for whoever assures them they will keep improving their lot.

They will not vote for those who threaten to redistribute wealth from them to those who now have less than them, even though they benefited precisely from that when they were worse off.

They are no longer in the position of needing redistribution, they can now lose in relative terms from the redistributive impulse. So, they will no longer vote for the redistributor who benefited them in the past because he will no longer favour them and could even perhaps harm them.

B.2) Social psychologists and sociologists discovered in the 1940s that in contexts in which mobility already exists, mobility is more demanded than in contexts without mobility.

So a caste-based society demands less mobility than a meritocratic one because the perception of some ascending motivations generates dissatisfaction among those who are not as mobile.

That would not happen in societies with no mobility and no mobility-related expectations, with models which are difficult to emulate, and in which there is no relative dissatisfaction or fear of immobility - or relatively less fear - before the mobility of others.

So, redistribution may not build its beneficiaries' loyalty as expected, partly because it is no longer in their best interest, and partly because they think that their previous voter allegiance will no longer satisfy their expectations of mobility - which were previously dormant, and have now been awoken.

All this is not surprising; on the contrary, what is surprising is that some are surprised at all. There exists a lyrical-romantic imaginary about real people which is tragically wrong, a radical product of the idea of popular sovereignty projected on a Rousseauian backdrop.

The elites save their profits

In Uruguay, you could draw up an extensive list of the successes of the left in government, in fact, it has already been done. It is actually quite clear, as in the case of the other countries governed by the left, that the overall results have been better than if the right had been in power.

It should suffice to compare the Gini indexes of current and trend inequality between countries governed by the left and the right.

In the case of Uruguay, and in relation to change, the governments of the left have not gone as far as expected nor as they could have considering the relative advantages they enjoyed.

However, huge doubts remain about the achievements of the governments of the left if we compare them with the expected results of leftist management.

One: In the case of Uruguay, and in relation to change, the governments of the left have not gone as far as expected nor as they could have considering the relative advantages they enjoyed, especially right after their election victory and accessing power. They had, in fact, a number of very significant advantages:

a) A boom in commodity prices which made possible a redistribution model that reduced formal thresholds of poverty without touching the most exclusive elite.

This model became less viable when the boom came to an end, which, in addition, delayed the possibility of overcoming of the agro-export and under-industrialization model affecting the countries in the region in general;

b) A favourable psycho-social context for electoral change through punishment voting, with voters lending votes or exchanging them in hope of a 'new broom' to sweep things clean;

c) The exit from a deep crisis from 2003 onwards, the result of which magically benefited those in government - the FA, since March 2005 -, even though it could not be ascertained whether the merits of that success could in fact be attributed to the government.

Two. The country showed clear evidence that a re-primarized export and financial capitalist model had been maintained and nourished - a model that the Left in government ought not to have allowed to reproduce itself extensively:

a) In addition to many improvements in unionization and some minor though real redistributions in Uruguay, the ownership of land and production was further concentrated and foreignized.

The landowners' profits from the price of properties of more than 200 hectares amounted to 30 billion dollars in 20 years, with a tax burden on agriculture of only 1.2% (taxation was also very low on equity, real estate, income, profits): in addition, the price of the hectare quadrupled, its yield doubled and the price of agricultural products increased;

b) Regarding the evolution of the relative participation of capital and labour, the value of land increased six-fold while real wages barely doubled;

c) In a country where 50% of the lower-income population accounts for only 23% of GDP while 20% of the higher-income population gets 45%, GDP since 1968 has slightly more than doubled, while real wages have grown only by 70%.

Since 1993 GDP per capita has increased 40%, while real wages remains the same. Can a government of the left be satisfied with these macroeconomic results in a context where it has enjoyed the relative advantages we have described?

Finally and briefly: it is unlikely that continuity of the left in government can strengthen change in Uruguay.

The international economic situation is less favourable, the ideological similarity with regional governments is lower, and the friendly neighbors are worse; and the Left has forgotten the Gramscian dictum that economic and political domination must be strengthened by changes in the political culture of civil society.

In Uruguay, management evaluation is liberal, and the culture is consumerist, individualistic, hedonistic, and mimics glamorous jet-set patterns.

The Left will not make any proposal outside that imaginary, because it would put at risk voter allegiance, which is considered today the supreme value by its alternative, previously utopian leadership.

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