Editors Note: There were many pictures throughout this that are now gone forever, unfortunately.
Chapter 1) Gentle rolling plains (overview)
This is Uruguay. A small country by most measures, but still bigger than the Netherlands. All the territory you see there is gentle, fertile plains. Almost every square mile of land in the country is useful for growing crops, or raising cattle. One could easily walk from one end of the country to the other without running into mountains or rough terrain. Though it’s not rich in minerals, Uruguay has other resources, fresh water being the biggest one. The weather is gentle, without any extreme temperatures, winds or precipitations.
So yes, it’s small. This becomes painfully obvious when you look at our neighbours, Argentina and Brazil. Uruguay looks like a little clog between two giants. And, as we’ll see later, that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be.
Uruguay is not only small. Consider its size: 176.215 km². Now check the population: about 3 million people. And now picture about half of that population living in the small capital to the south, Montevideo. The picture is obvious: Uruguay is pretty much empty. Not only that: it’s getting more and more deserted as time goes by. We’re shrinking.
Many Uruguayans tell a story, probably false but significant. Legend goes that a japanese businessman wanted to invest in Uruguay. The uruguayan entrepreneurs took him on a tour of the countryside. There, under the sun, watching the cows peacefully eating the grass, a few birds overhead, the japanese man wept. Concerned, the uruguayans asked him what was wrong. The man said he had never felt so alone in his life.
I feel that says something about Uruguay.
So far I’ve given you the tourist, official version. Let me show you something.
Half the kids being born in Uruguay today are below the poverty line. Many suffer from lead poisoning because they work with unsorted garbage all day as soon as they can walk. Most of them have problems related to malnutrition. Every day more and more fall victim to the “pasta base”, a drug made with the remains of the process used to make cocaine -think crack and you’ll be on the right path.
Malnutrition in a country with more cows than people. Fuck.
It wasn’t always like this. Uruguay once had it all. It was the shining example to follow in Latin America.
But let’s start from the top.
Chapter 2) Imperial conflicts (and natives, but we don’t talk about them much, can we change the subject now?)
There were people in Uruguay before the europeans came. This sounds like a stupid and obvious thing to say, but to most uruguayans it’s like nails on a chalkboard. We don’t like to be reminded that we genocided them.
The main native culture were the Charrúas, a nomadic people that focused on hunting. Very little is known about them; they left behind no written records, nor any buildings. They were a culture on the go. Explorer Pedro de Mendoza described them thus:
“They had nothing to eat but meat and fish. They left the place when we arrived, and we couldn’t find them. This nation of indians goes around naked, while the women cover up their shameful parts with a piece of cloth that goes from the navel to the knee”
They had no great Empire. They weren’t like the Aztecs or the Mayans, so they posed little symbolic threat; they were left alone for a while. The reason is simple: Uruguay had little mineral resources and absolutely no gold, so the Spanish didn’t bother to settle in the area, and during the XVI and early XVII centuries the Imperial presence was minimal.
Then the cows came. The settlers came after the cows. The climate and vegetation was perfect for their breeding. Now there was a reason to come. Also, at this point in time (late 1600s) Spain and Portugal were warring over territory in South America; the area had a valuable strategic location and, more importantly, the best damn natural port in the continent.
The Portuguese came first, founding Colonia del Sacramento in a blatant breach of the Tordecillas treaty. Spain was not going to take it, and founded Montevideo, to the East of Colonia, afraid that Portugal would keep expanding beyond Brazil. What follows is a series of conquests and losses: Spain gains control of the area, Portugal takes it, Spain reclaims it, rinse and repeat. This small patch of land had become one of the most active fronts in an Imperial war for the continent. And the indians? Well, they were slaughtered or enslaved on sight. But neither the Spanish nor the Portuguese would kill them all. That was all us uruguayans. More on that later.
Also, in a dick move extraordinaire, Britain butted in and conquered Montevideo in 1807, then gave it up four years later as part of a treaty. Yeah.
In the meanwhile, a healthy immigrant population was building up, with a very distinct ruling class (called the Familias Patricias) in Montevideo. All this Imperial warfare was bad for business; the new ruling class wanted to be free to milk the huge swaths of land they had been granted by the Viceroyality to their heart’s content. They wanted peace to exploit what the crown had given to them. What they got was another thing altogether.
Chapter 3) Artigas and the Revolution, or “That’s not what I meant, you dumb shits”
By 1813 a movement striving for more autonomy was sweeping the continent, and would very quickly evolve into a full-blown independist movement. Argentina was going ahead with their revolutionary movement, but Uruguay was far more loyalist, having a strong military Spanish presence and many veterans. So while Argentina fought against the Imperial interests, Uruguay fought for them. For a while, at least. Then this fucker here decided to kick ass:
This is José Gervasio Artigas, the greatest hero you never heard about. Born from a wealthy family, he really wasn’t into that whole “landlording” thing, and preferred to hang out with the gauchos, the biggest badasses to ever set foot on the continent. They lived on horseback, gave no fuck about no law or private property, had singing duels, real duels, and basically lived their lives in freedom.
Artigas became a smuggler and all around bad dude with an education. When the army offered amnesty for criminals, he enrolled in the border patrol. Then he said fuck it and went to Buenos Aires to meet with the revolutionaries, at the ripe age of 40. The man had a dream: a federal system that would unite all the peoples of the continent, drawing strength from cooperation and brotherhood against all Imperial outsiders, while maintaining autonomy and local culture. That’s right, he wanted the United States of South America.
He mobilised the poor, the gauchos, the indians, and built a revolutionary movement to be feared. The loyalist elites hid behind the walls of Montevideo. Artigas faced the Spanish army in his home turf, the countryside, and beat them despite an overwhelming numeric disadvantage. He was a master strategist and knew the terrain inside out from his years of smuggling and dodging capture. He had the gauchos, who fought as a lifestyle and went into battle with total abandon; he had the indians, who struck fear in the heart of the Spanish conscripts. It was the stuff of legends and folk songs. He even went as far as laying a siege on Montevideo, a fortress-city.
The Portuguese saw the chance and jumped at it (with authorization from the loyalists), invading what would later become Uruguay. Now Artigas had to fight the two biggest Imperial armies in the continent. An armistice was quickly signed by the revolutionaries in Buenos Aires. But Artigas wasn’t out just yet. He marched north, and the people loyal to him, followed. This is called the Éxodo Oriental.
Talk about having charisma: dozens of families just packed up and went behind him without him prompting or coercing them.
Artigas continued planning and organizing the revolution, but since the revolutionaries in Buenos Aires had signed the armistice, they started seeing him as a loose cannon. Not daring to spark a direct conflict, they sent Manuel de Sarratea to undermine his efforts. He bribed many and intimidated others. But Artigas still had his gauchos and his indians. He wasn’t about to let go.
After a series of infighting within revolutionary forces, Sarratea was forced to resign, and Artigas headed to Montevideo to join the second siege of the city.
In 1813 an assembly was held in Buenos Aires to settle once and for all the tenants of the revolution. Artigas sent a delegation with some clear-cut non-debatable points, among which were:
– “The only acceptable form of governance for the Provinces is to be a Federation”
– “There is to be civil and religious freedom in all its imaginable length”
– “The seat of government of the United Provinces must be outside of Buenos Aires”
This did not sit well with many of the Revolutionaries from Buenos Aires, who dreamt of a single country with Buenos Aires as its capital city. The stage for a new conflict was set: unitarians on the one side, federalists on the other. Maybe an argentinian poster could elaborate on this, as it tore the country apart. I’ll focus on my own little piece of land.
Artigas fought the unitarians, and co-founded the Liga Federal. He instated some policies of an almost socialist tone, including the redistribution of land and cattle to the workers rather than the oligarchs, full rights for free black people (slaves, sadly, got no benefits) and independence for the indians (who, while free to choose their own administrators, would be still under the watchful eye of the white man- still, far better than anything suggested at the time). The aglophile, city-based unitarians were not pleased.
Then, Brazil invaded. Artigas now had to fight enemies from within the revolution and from outside of it. He was ultimately defeated, and had to exile himself in Paraguay, where he died without glory or fame. The federalist cause lost, and as a mayor figurehead of the movement he was vilified as little more than a rubble rouser.
How, then, would he become the Founding Father and National Hero of Uruguay, a new, independent country he not only did not intend to be created as such, but abhorred the idea as undermining the unity of the peoples of South America?
We have the British to thank for that.
Chapter 4) The President is getting uppity, better kill the fucker (what indians? No indians round here, never were, no siree) Also, sorry Paraguay, no hard feelings, right?
By 1825 Uruguay boldly declared full Independence. No more of that “united continent” bullshit. Fuck brotherhood. We’re loud, we’re proud, get used to it. We had an unlikely ally in this whole project: Britain. In fact, while Artigas now decorates our coinage (and is rolling in his fucking grave about it), the true man responsible for Uruguayan independence was British diplomat Lord Ponsonby.
Britain was at the time doing its “divide and conquer” shtick all over the world, creating or aiding small “clog states” that would prevent neighbouring countries from getting too powerful, while giving Britain a strong -if unofficial- footing in the region. And look: here are two very big, very rich countries and a small region that kinda-wants-to-be-independent. Ponsonby aided both materially and ideologically the independist movement, creating a favourable international context and rousing the intellectual -angophile- elites. Deep down that’s what Uruguay is: Britain’s middle finger extended towards Argentina and Brazil.
In 1830 Uruguay was independent and had a pretty new constitution that guaranteed that the power stayed within the elites. Problem is, Montevideo is small. The countryside gave no fuck about the constitution, and power was divided between caudillos (think warlords) who had their own rule of favours and nepotism. And of course they had a big swell of gauchos who would rather ride with the caudillo of their choice than bow down to some document locked away in the city somewhere. Interestingly, the relationship between the caudillo and its followers is one of padrinazgo, and the respectful form to address a caudillo was padrino. For the spanish-impaired, that means Godfather.
Historian Pedro Barrán would describe the 1830 constitution as “a fine piece of french porcelain smashed under the hooves of a wild bull”. Eventually, two caudillos became prominent, each heading one of the two political parties (using the term rather lightly): Fructuoso Rivera and Manuel Oribe. Rivera became the first president of Uruguay. And what happens when you have two opposed, autonomous poles of power? That’s right: Civil War.
But Rivera had time to squeeze one small policy act before the thing exploded: A genocide. The indians, instrumental in securing the country’s independence were no longer needed. Rivera, who had fought alongside the indians in the War, called them over for a meeting, supposedly to ask them to watch over the frontier. He got them drunk, and asked one of the chieftain’s if he could borrow his knife to chop tobacco. He got the knife. That was the signal. Rivera’s troops massacred all but four of the indians. The survivors were sold to France, where they were exhibited in freak shows, caged for the rest of their lives.
Anyway, Rivera (pictured above) and Oribe (below) went at it. There was a larger international context for it: Argentina was going through one, and each side in the uruguayan conflict aligned with a side on the argentinian conflict: Rivera’s Colorados with the unitarians, Oribe’s Blancos with Rosas.
That’s what happens when you are such a small country next to a big one: everything that happens over there affects you greatly. Argentinian troops entered the country, alliances shifted, the two Civil Wars became one… even the French, British and Italians (led by Garibaldi) intervened. It was a clusterfuck of epic proportions.
Eventually, Oribe was defeated. But the mess had become too tangled by then. Berro, a Blanco became president, so the Colorados decided to kill his ass. Venancio Flores, the Colorado leader, struck a deal with Argentina and Brazil, while Berro struck one with Paraguay. War ensued. Berro had to get out of Uruguay, so now Paraguay was looking straight at the combined forces of Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil. They got massacred. About 80% of the adult male population was killed. So… yay us?
Oh, did I mention that Britain instigated that war? Because they did. See, Paraguay was becoming too upitty with its nationalized services and all. The British didn’t like the idea of losing business, so they used Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil to teach Paraguay a lesson about trying to be economically independent.
Our services, meanwhile, were supplied by many fine British companies.
What follows is a chain of uprisings and new caudillos trying to gain power. The elites in Montevideo were having none of that, as it was bad for business. Oh yes, they had become full-blown burgoise, and it was time to whip this country into proper shape, damnit!
Chapter 5) Courtesy and Courtesans: That is not proper, not proper at all.
By the late Nineteenth Century, the ruling elites had gone from a strictly land-based, passive and reactionary mindset to a full capitalist burgoise mindset. The business class had arrived. Wealth was still tied to the land however; and how in hell is one supposed to make a profit when those damned gauchos go around as they please eating one’s cattle at will? That would not do.
What followed was an astonishing effort to “civilise” the freewheeling, almost anarchic Uruguay once and for all. And boy, did it work. The basis of what would become the “uruguayan mindset” was created in this point in time.
The first step was strengthening the state apparatus. After decades of infighting and coups, the elites needed a strong authority to conduct their dealings in peace. They propped up Lorenzo Latorre, who ruled between 1876 and 1879. Yes, it was a dictatorship; and yes, Latorre did exactly was he was supposed to do.
First, the urgent business: Latorre carried out a massive campaign to fence the fields in order to stop the gauchos from killing cattle willy-nilly. Property laws were for the first time enforced in full. But the gauchos weren’t going down without a fight. Latorre secured new weapons and created a new training regime for the Army. Gauchos had to join in, or be gunned down. Outgunned and under a huge wave of oppression, the gauchos were either killed or conscripted, all while gaining the status of folk legend. At the same time that statues and poems were being created in their honour, they were being destroyed.
Just like the indians before them, the gauchos were crushed as soon as they had “served their purpose”. Even today uruguayans pay lip service to the legend of the gaucho, just like they talk about the “garra charrúa” (charrúa strength) when referring to uruguay’s willpower and resilience (specially related to soccer). Almost no uruguayan pays any mind to the fact that we killed our greatest national symbols.
But Latorre also thought long-term. He had to change the freedom loving mindset and animosity that had characterized the uruguayan people. How to do it? Big props go to this strapping young man:
José Pedro Varela. The “Father of the School”. He was a young philosopher, journalist, and sociologist who took Durkheim’s view of education as a tool for mass control and ran with it. Primary education became mandatory; so did uniforms in schools. Corporal punishment was also in vogue. Even today, Varela is revered in every school, his portrait adorning classrooms and halls. His aim was not one of education as we understand it today, but one of indoctrination. Even himself was conflicted about his role, specially in working for a dictator. When pushed about it, he famously quipped: “I work with Latorre to make sure there are no other Latorres in the future”. Reading his writings is extremely interesting, as his intentions were good, but his methods were just what Latorre needed.
Latorre also used another great tool of indoctrination: the Church. The Catholic Church had always being present in Uruguay (Franciscans in particular), but under Latorre it preached the virtues of restraint of all passion, sexual repression, respect for authority and guilt.
And if everything else fails, he always had the rifle. It worked like a charm. Within a generation, the face of uruguayan ideology was changed radically. Montevideo was a city of gentlemen and proper ladies. Courtesy abounded, and so did prostitutes, a sort of socially accepted release for passion in males. Women got no such luck. It’s a fascinating period in history, almost a tabula rasa in terms of the uruguayan identity.
Social control was at its strongest, with everyone eyeing everyone else for improper behaviour that would cause a social punishment, if not an official one. Business was better than ever for the ruling class, and Uruguay exported prime goods, mainly leather, salted meat and rice.
In this period Uruguay started getting a reputation as the role model to follow for Latin America, and uruguayans became famous for their politeness and education. Varela’s system was working a bit too well, perhaps, as Uruguay had the most educated populace in the continent.
And what happens with a highly educated populace? It takes a hard turn to the left…
Authors note: I should point out that it’s at this point that uruguayan history is whitewashed completely to fit with the new mindset, and that Artigas was propped up as the Heroic figure. If you have to create a sense of nationalism to instil obedience to the state, you need a National Hero, and Artigas worked wonderfully. Of course, his most revolutionary ideals were quietly stricken from the record, as were the contributions of the indians.
Chapter 6) Fat Cows
It’s the early Twentieth Century, Uruguay has a strong economy, Latorre is gone and in his place there is a stable democracy, it’s safe and bristling with opportunity. Europe, on the other hand, not doing so good. Many europeans flee to Uruguay, bringing with them new ideas. Ideas like socialism and anarchism.
In 1903 Uruguay elected a man made of awesome.
José Batlle y Ordóñez, a president like no other. He inherited a country with a very healthy economy… and a very unjust society. Batlle y Ordóñez set the standard by which all other presidents are judged. He was a feminist who secretly wrote and published feminist manifestos posing as a woman while in office. He created a system of social security that ensured that no one would have to go without help or healthcare (1903, take notes America). He reduced the working day to eight hours, and enforced the shit out of it. He created a minimum wage that made Uruguay the least unequal country in the continent. He made high school free, and built a shitload of them, securing a reputation for culture that uruguayans still enjoy to this day. He made Uruguay one of the first fully secular states, eliminating all reference to God from public documents and oaths, and even banning the display of religious images in any public building, including hospitals. He legalized divorce, one of the first countries to do so in the world.
This is the time all uruguayans dream about and talk about returning to. It seemed that Uruguay could do no wrong. In 1930 Uruguay hosted -and won- the first World Cup, the economy was strong, crime was minimal, workers and women gained more rights all the time, education was top-notch, several beautiful monuments and government buildings were built, and society was -almost- just. Plus, in 1950 we won the World Cup again. Suck it, Brazil.
It all hanged by a thread, however: there was little to no investment in manufacture infrastructure. Who needs that shit, right? Europe was warring left and right, buying our leather and canned meat, and the money just kept coming in. So what if we didn’t manufacture? We could import everything we needed and still remain strong selling our wool, leather and meat.
But then Europe and the U.S.A. stopped buying.
Everything went to shit. The dream was over.
Chapter 7) You say you want a Revolution
Picture-perfect Uruguay went down the drain, fast. No one quite understood really what was happening. The economy went suddenly to the shitter, the social security system risked collapse due to an ageing population, poverty increased, the beautiful infrastructure was unkempt and deteriorating rapidly… it caught everyone by surprise. I mean, we were doing things the same way as before, but now money didn’t come in.
To steal a line from John Oliver, we were the shell-shocked man walking out of the Casino at 4 A.M. not sure of how to tell his wife he had lost everything.
The explanation was overwhelmingly simple: Uruguay had based its economy on selling prime goods with little value (in the Marxist sense of the term), and the world wasn’t buying. Warfare had changed; leather and canned meat were no longer in great demand. Capital had gone away to cheaper places. We couldn’t manufacture anything, so we kept importing until the coffers, filled during the World Wars emptied. In the meanwhile, as civil unrest grew, so did the military’s power over policy and security matters. Well before the dictatorship that was to come, the military started “disappearing” left-leaning intellectuals and activists.
Reaction was radical. The sixties arrived, bringing new social movements to the forefront and attracting more and more young people to revolutionary causes. They wanted to change the world, and in Uruguay no one was bigger on revolution than these guys:
The Movimiento de Liberación Nacional (Tupamaros), a strong, highly organized coalition of leftist movements that included Maoists, Leninists, Trotskyists, Socialists, and even Anarchists. They felt the only way towards a significant change was through revolution, and this belief and urgency united them. They mobilised students, who formed the FER (Frente Estudiantil Revolucionario), possibly the most radical arm of the movement. My dad was a member.
The right wing was not without a movement of its own, the JUP, a nationalist, proto-fascist reaction to the MLN.
The JUP acted with the tacit consent of the state, and often attacked and even killed members of the MLN. Listen, when we talk about the MLN being a revolutionary movement we’re not talking flags and demonstrations on the street. We’re talking taking over highschools, tossing molotovs from rooftops, planting car bombs and carrying out kidnappings and surgical assassinations of reactionary, ultra-right wing members of the oligarchy and the government. Remember that by that point, the government had taken a sharp turn towards right-wing totalitarianism.
The MLN operated as an urban guerrilla, and had the particularity of being extremely educated and prone to theoretic debate, specially about marxism. They were intellectuals with guns, or guerrilleros with big bookcases. They vindicated Artigas’ ideals of social equality and revolutionary intentions, going against the white-washed fairy tale version that was being taught at schools.
Many parts of Latin America were going through similar processes, and the different revolutionary movements coordinated their efforts and -little known fact- even resources. I know this because I know one of the people responsible of this coordination. My mum.
Eventually the MLN grew so powerful that the state banned any and all mention of them in any media. They became known as Los Innombrables: the unnameables. So a big part of the effort was directed towards spreading the word and explaining to the people that they were fighting for them. Once, two Tupamaros planted a bomb in a basketball final. The bomb wasn’t designed to hurt: it showered the court with pamphlets from “The unnameables”. My dad was one of those two. He also worked on securing funding to falsify documents for those that had to escape the country. He got over 100 people out by selling cheese and jam.
The MLN even had its own system of prisons hidden throughout the city, and got funding from many sources, including holding important oppressors for ransom. One of those persons was the U.S. ambassador.
Many high-level Tupamaros were captured and tortured. Some were held inside empty water wells for more than 13 years. Others managed to escape, most notably in a massive escape from the Punta Carretas jail, that became a local legend. It is now a shopping mall. Ironic.
I live right in front of it. My uncle was tortured there.
By 1972, the movement was defeated. The leaders were dead, imprisoned or in exile. A rat had cut a deal with the Armed Forces and given up all his information, and retaliation was swift.
By that point, the Armed Forces had complete control over the country. The “insurgent menace” was over, but when has the Army actually relinquished power?
Authors note: I can’t believe I left a certain fucker out. This fucker funded, trained and supplied the military in order to quash the “Commies” in his fucking “back yard”:
“Nixon’s spirit will be with us for the rest of our lives — whether you’re me or Bill Clinton or you or Kurt Cobain or Bishop Tutu or Keith Richards or Amy Fisher or Boris Yeltsin’s daughter or your fiancee’s 16-year-old beer-drunk brother with his braided goatee and his whole life like a thundercloud out in front of him. This is not a generational thing. You don’t even have to know who Richard Nixon was to be a victim of his ugly, Nazi spirit.” – Hunter S. Thompson.
Chapter 8) Nothing to see here, move along
In 1973 the MLN was crushed, but the army wasn’t about to let go of the power it had acquired. They pulled off a Coup D’etat. They cleared out congress and kept the president as a willing figurehead. In fact, it was not a military coup. It was a civilian-military coup. The elites took the country by the balls and squeezed hard.
They were not alone in this. The whole region was being swept by military coups, coordinated and funded by the U.S.A. It was called the Plan Condor. The CIA trained the army in the finer points of torture. “Testicles, not balls. Testicles.” Imagine that line being said by a CIA agent to a potty-mouthed uruguayan trainee, while “practicing” on captured revolutionaries. Of course, read any history textbook and you’ll be surprised to find that none of what I’m about to tell you happened. Until very recently, uruguayans refused to talk about the dictatorial period, with an “out of sight, out of mind” mindset and a creeping dread that stirring up the ghosts of the past would wake them up again. Then again I do have a bit of an inside source.
While the express motive for this was “security”, “peace” and “the fight against Communism”, the real reason was far more pedestrian. It was all about the markets. The U.S.A. wanted those markets open, and the elites wanted none of that “worker’s rights” and “unions” crap. But again, officially it didn’t happen.
People didn’t disappear in the dead of night, taken from their own homes. Children were not kidnapped and given to the same army officials that killed their parents to be raised. A group of highschoolers was not forced to rape their best friend at gunpoint, and she certainly didn’t commit suicide afterwards. No one was kept in a hole for 13 years, until he went crazy and started hearing alien voices. The newspapers did not have to be submitted to the government for approval before printing. Certainly no censorship of any kind went on. No one was secretly thrown off a plane into the Rio de la Plata. No schoolteacher was inside the Venezuelan embassy when yanked out by the armed forces, causing Venezuela to cut their ties to Uruguay. Schools were not forbidden to use the word “Democracy” in any way, shape or form. The elites did not plunder everything in sight, increasing poverty spectacularly. There were no mandatory pledges to the government, the flag and the country. My uncle was never tortured, the fat liar. No meetings of three or more people were forbidden. No senators were killed after escaping to Buenos Aires. No one was raped.
Of course, since nothing happened, the people responsible didn’t get away with it, to live long, plentiful lives with plundered money and stolen children.
Nothing happened, so there’s no point talking about it.
Chapter 9) The Invisible Fist
Uruguay’s dictatorship didn’t explode. It wasn’t toppled down. It just kinda deflated. By 1984 the Cold War was gearing down, or at least losing some of its sense of urgency. The U.S.A. quietly withdrew support from the military regime. Small acts of dissent became more common (but there was still no armed opposition), and the regime figured out it needed some sort of legitimacy. In a desperate, last ditch attempt to stay in power the dictatorship itself called for a vote, just checking if we wanted a Democracy, you know? Of course they banned all forms of advertising or mobilization against them; they were still the Armed Forces.
They got their asses handed to them. They conveyed a meeting with the leaders of the major political parties in the Naval Club, and terms were discussed. The military would step down if certain candidates were barred from running, and if the military escaped any punishment. Two of the three parties agreed, the Blancos refused to go along with it if they couldn’t run their candidate, Wilson.
Elections were held. Democracy was back. What followed were two decades of fuckers out of any socialist’s nightmare:
Julio María Sanguinetti. Colorado. Neoliberal. Damn smart politician, tricky and slick as fuck. He kept the markets open and took a “hard line” against crime and unions. The Frente Amplio still was associated with the MLN in the minds of the people, and many MLN exiles came back and joined, going from revolutionaries to politicians. Sanguinetti was and still is a bona fide mafioso. He defended the interests of the economic elites to the end, and trampled on anyone who dared oppose him. He was also a corrupt piece of shit, and one of the main forces that kept the dictatorship out of the political and historical discourse and out of the classrooms. Then came…
Luis Alberto Lacalle. Less savvy, but even more neoliberal and specially, more corrupt. Under him he and his friends stole a bank. Literally. Their bank was going down due to poor management, giant bonuses and… well, plain old stealing. So Lacalle just bought the bank using state money. He tried to privatize all services, as well, but a referendum stopped him from doing so. Privatize profit, nationalise loss. Textbook neoliberlism right here.
He also had student protesters shot and killed. What a nice guy. Lucky for him there was an international financial boom, so all the structural damage and inequality he was creating kind of went under the rug. It would explode later.
But then, this strapping fellow came along.
Yes, Sanguinetti again. Inequality kept growing, as presidents kept putting the elite they came from before the people. Uruguay kept borrowing more and more from the IMF to finance itself. Also, the Frente Amplio was growing steadily, and the Right was having none of that. They introduced a referendum that would divide the election: instead of being a simple majority election, there would be a second round between the two most voted candidates, unless a candidate got over 50% of the vote in the first round. The dynamic was obvious: You have three parties, two of them right wing, one left wing. With the new system the right wing parties would join against the left wing party and crush it. Any pretence that Blancos and Colorados weren’t two sides of the same coin, representing the same interests, went out the window. But a decade and a half of neoliberal policies and looting don’t come without consequences, and everything went to shit under the watchful eye of this guy:
The one on the left, obviously. Jorge Batlle, Colorado, the son of Batlle y Ordóñez’s nephew, he would drag the illustrious family name through the ground. He was a bad president to be sure, and also a damn fool who had a knack for always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time (in an interview he called Argentinians “A bunch of thieves, from the first to the last”, then went apologized in tears on Argentinian TV), but truth is he got dealt a pretty bad hand. Uruguay’s economy was collapsing. Young people were ditching the country in droves. Graffitti on the walls would say “to the last one that leaves: remember to turn off the lights”. Argentina’s economy also collapsed, and since it is Uruguay’s main market for exports, it cracked us completely. Thanks, Menem.
The people wouldn’t take it, specially when word got out that friends of government officials had secretly pulled all their money from banks going under in the dark, right before a ban on monetary extractions was enacted. The cacerolazos happened: people went out in mass banging on pots and breaking stuff. The cacerolazos in Argentina were far more violent and led to the President’s resignation; in Uruguay they… well, made a lot of noise. Yeah, while argentinians stormed the city, uruguayans very politely asked when they would be able to see their money again, please, oh, and if the dollar would stop skyrocketing that would be just dandy. That 19th Century indoctrination kicking in again. Many middle-class people lived in fear that poor people from the slums would come to the city and start looting, kinda like an even more unwashed Mongol Horde, while they themselves couldn’t make it to the end of the month. Talk about looking at your brother and seeing an enemy… Uruguayans looked at what was going on in Argentina and shit their pants, but nothing happened.
Well, not exactly nothing. Against a system designed against it, the Left was about to make history.
Chapter 10) So, here we stand
Nothing makes people more susceptible to change than a huge crisis, and we had a huge crisis. Those who had fought and lived now were in the ranks of the Frente Amplio, with a strong message of change, but for the most part, not Revolution. In 2005 the Frente Amplio won the election on the first round, something that was meant to be impossible in a 3-party system; but Batlle had all but killed the Colorado Party, and many from the old parties switched to the leftist coalition.
The Frente Amplio had been wise; it had not run any of its more controversial figures, instead running a socialist oncologist and former Intendente of Montevideo, Tabaré Vázquez.
He kinda looks like Henry Winkler, doesn’t he?
I can’t even begin to describe what election night was like. The streets were flooded with people cheering, dancing, drinking, making out… never had a I felt such energy coming from a group of uruguayans outside of a soccer stadium. My then-girlfriend and I were wandering the streets hugging and smoking and drinking with strangers. At one point an old man we didn’t know snuck us inside an old, closed, ran-down bar were a lot of old communists and even anarchists were celebrating and debating between cheers. They gave us a free bottle of fucking expensive wine and raised their cups to El Che, to Lenin, to Trotsky, to the Tupamaros. Everyone was united, and seeing an old anarchist saying “fuck it. I’ll drink to the sonovabicth too!” when people shouted “to Lenin!” was glorious. Outside, people climbed up McDonald’s signs, bands started impromptu concerts on roofs, some guys had a foam machine going on and people danced and laughed the night away.
Well, election nights are one thing and governing is quite another. While I have many misgivings about this government (they marginalized the more leftist parts of the Party and run a pretty centrist social democracy, and their education policies suck ass, focusing on the same shit that the previous governments had focused on), next to the right wingers they are fucking Jesus. The economy recovered quite a bit, a new program of social equality was established (much to the displeasure of the middle class who felt they were giving their hard earned taxes away to those poor folk), relations with Cuba and Venezuela were strengthened, local manufacturing was encouraged, the health system was overhauled, and prominent figures from the dicatorship were brought to trial and in some cases imprisoned for their acts, the government gave a compensation to the families of the murdered and the tortured, helped the kidnapped kids discover their true parent’s fates, and brought the dictatorship into history curriculum in highschools…
But the main problems remain. Poverty is still rampant, and you can’t fix decades of growing inequality in 5 years. Sadly, not everyone is on board with the changes. While the Colorado Party is still almost nonexistent, they are running Pedro Bordaberry, the son of the President that started the dictatorship:
Jeez, could this guy look more authoritarian? He is courting the far right vote, and getting it, of course. Note the small size of his last name. He wants people to forget that his father staged a coup d’etat, while knowing that those sick fucks who would vote for him anyway remember full well who he is and what he represents.
The Frente Amplio is running one of its most radical and vocal former revolutionaries, a man who has the marvellous virtue of being right almost all the time and yet saying things in a way that puts off the middle class that had voted Frente Amplio in 2005, José Mujica:
This guy is awesome. He lives in a farm outside Montevideo, where he grows his own food and raises his own animals, and he routinely stands up to all the “politics speech” by being amazingly direct and even crass when necessary. The idea is to mobilise the young and the poor like never before, at the cost of the centrist middle class. I hope it works, because the Blancos have found a guy to wake up the selfish and scared side of the middle class, the “fuck you, got mine” instinct, the “fuck the poor I want my monies” lizard brain, and he could have a shot…
There you have it, from a patch of land Spain had no use for to a Revolution, to a Civil war, to a Dictatorship, to a Democracy, to a Dictatorship, to a Democracy… This is home.