Tabaré Vázquez





President of Uruguay

Born Tabaré Ramón Vázquez Rosas, January 17, 1940; married to Maria Auxiliadora Delgado; children: four. Education: Received medical degree from the University of the Republic (Uruguay) as an oncology and radiology specialist, 1972.

Addresses: Office —Casa de Gobierno, Edificio Libertad, Avenida Luis Alberto de Herrera 3350, Montevideo 11600, Uruguay. Website —http://www.-presidencia.gub.uy.

Career

Worked as a doctor, c. 1970-2004; joined central committee of the Socialist Party of Uruguay, 1987; elected mayor of Montevideo, 1989; took office, 1990; ran unsuccessfully for president of Uruguay, 1994 and 1999; elected president of Uruguay, 2004; inaugurated, 2005.

Sidelights

When Tabaré Vázquez was sworn in as president of Uruguay in March of 2005, he made history in his own country and signified the emergence of a new political trend in South America. A longtime member of the Socialist Party, at the head of a coalition that included former guerrillas, Vázquez became Uruguay's first leftist president, shattering a two-party system that had governed the country for 150 years. He promised justice for those abused and murdered by a military dictatorship decades earlier. He also joined a growing number of left-wing leaders that govern almost all of

South America, presenting a new challenge to the foreign policy of the United States and the free-market reforms it espouses.

Vázquez was born on January 17, 1940; his father was a politically active oil worker. He attended medical school at Uruguay's University of the Republic and graduated as an oncology and radiology specialist in 1972. In 1976, he received a scholarship to study at the Gustave Roussy Institute in Paris. During his career as a doctor, he published more than a hundred papers in national and international journals. A member of Uruguay's Socialist Party, Vázquez was named to its central committee in 1987. In 1989, he ran for mayor of Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, as the candidate of the Broad Front, a coalition of socialists, communists, moderates and former guerrillas who had fought the military dictatorship of the 1970s and early 1980s. He won the election and took office in 1990.

As mayor of Montevideo, Vázquez became extremely popular by combining socialist ideas with some projects that embraced free-market economics. The president of Uruguay, Louis Lacalle, publicly attacked Vázquez, but the comments backfired, making Lacalle less popular and rallying support for Vázquez. But when Vázquez tried to translate his popularity as mayor into a bid for the presidency of Uruguay in 1994, he lost, gaining only 31 percent of the vote.

Five years later, Vázquez tried again, during difficult economic times for Uruguay, and he surprised many observers by placing first in the first round of voting, with 40 percent. However, he had to face the second-place finisher in a runoff under Uruguay election rules (some observers believed the second-round rule was instituted to keep the Broad Front out of power). He lost the second round with 44 percent of the vote, but his party won the largest bloc of seats in the congressional elections. His strong showing caught a lot of attention in Latin America, which was beginning to question the free-market reforms that dominated its politics and economics in the 1990s.

Uruguay was once known as the Switzerland of South America because of its prosperous economy, large middle class, highly educated population, and generous welfare state. But the country's economic fortune had been eroding for many years, and the government-provided safety net was dismantled during the reforms of the 1990s. The 2002 recessions in neighboring Brazil and Argentina hurt Uruguay badly. Its economy contracted by 10 percent, leaving one-third of all Uruguayans below the poverty line. Though the Uruguayan economy expanded by more than 10 percent in 2004, the crisis of 2002 still left many voters suspicious of both of the traditional ruling parties and eager for change.

So Vázquez again ran for president in 2004 as the Broad Front candidate, promising relief for the country's poorest citizens and a foreign policy less friendly with the United States and more friendly to communist Cuba. He united socialist idealism with pragmatic economic solutions to problems, reassuring foreign investors who often worry that left-wing politicians in Latin America will take the sort of confrontational approach favored by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. "[While my] eyes are on utopia, my feet are on the ground," Vázquez told voters, according to Larry Rohter of the New York Times.

Vázquez also said he would continue to work as a doctor one day a week while president, with substantial power delegated to his staff. Critics said that during the campaign, Vázquez was vague about many of his positions in order to please both the former guerrillas and European-style social democrats in the Broad Front. "Tabaré Vázquez is a mystery," Pablo da Silveira, a university professor and political commentator, told Rohter of the New York Times. "No one knows what he really thinks because he has said everything and its opposite."

The last rally Vázquez held before the election, in Montevideo in October of 2004, attracted several hundred thousand people. On October 31, Vázquez won the presidency with 51 percent of the vote. His next closest rival, from a center-right party, won 34 percent, while the ruling centrist party candidate won only 10 percent. The Broad Front also won majorities in both houses of the congress. His victory shattered the two-party system that had dominated Uruguay for 150 years.

With his inauguration in March of 2005, the New York Times noted, three-quarters of South America's 355 million people were governed by left-wing leaders, from Argentina to Brazil to Venezuela. In general, these leaders rejected the region's free-market reforms of the 1990s (known as the Washington Consensus because the United States promoted them so heavily) as failing to address the continent's serious problems with poverty. However, most of the leaders are also pragmatists that, unlike previous generations of South American leftists, practice financial restraint and remain hospitable to foreign investors.

Hundreds of thousands of people, waving Uruguayan flags or banners with the colors of the Broad Front coalition, celebrated Vázquez' inauguration in the streets pof Montevideo. "We promised change, and we will make changes, starting with the government itself, in its attitudes and its actions," Vázquez said in his inaugural address (as quoted by Rohter in the New York Times ). He said he would immediately create economic policies "to the benefit of those who need them to achieve a life with dignity." He also promised an "independent foreign policy," and insisted, "We will tolerate no outside interference in our internal affairs," signs that Uruguay would distance itself somewhat from the United States and negotiate forcefully with its foreign creditors, such as the International Monetary Fund.

Vázquez took office exactly 20 years after Uruguay's military dictatorship ended (it ruled the country from 1973 to 1985), and he promised to investigate never-prosecuted abuses by the dictatorship, or "dark zones in the area of human rights," as he put it (according to Rohter). "For the good of all, it is possible and necessary to clarify" what happened, he said, so "the horrors of past eras never happen again." Controversial leftist Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez attended Vázquez's inauguration and spoke at a ceremony celebrating it. Vázquez also immediately reestablished relations with Cuba upon taking office. However, Vázquez sent several signs that his government would be centrist. He chose a moderate as his economy minister, Danilo Astori, who promised repeatedly to follow the example of the pragmatic center-left president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in seeking financial stability while pursuing social programs. Vázquez also relegated hard-line socialists and former guerrillas in his coalition to ministries with little control over economic policy. His government announced that it wanted to renegotiate Uruguay's foreign debt of about $13 billion, but remained committed to paying it, unlike the leftist government in Argentina, which has simply stopped payments on its foreign debt.

The Vázquez government immediately launched a $100 million-a-year emergency plan to fight poverty. Out of Uruguay's population of 3.4 million, 1 million are poor. But the plan focuses on the 45,000 families who cannot afford enough food, by giving them grants of about $57 a month in housing, food, health and job assistance. Also, in July of 2005, the Vázquez government began pursuing justice in one of the worst crimes committed during the military dictatorship and civil war. It filed murder charges against the former president and his foreign minister, charging them in the kidnapping and murder of two Uruguayan congressmen who fled the country to Argentina after the congress was shut down. The government also demanded that the three branches of the military respond to several accusations of human rights abuses by August of 2005, and it began excavating a military barracks where murdered prisoners were alleged to have been buried. The investigations and charges are somewhat controversial, since the country has an amnesty in place protecting the military from being prosecuted for crimes during the civil war (it was enacted in 1986 as a condition of the military handing over power). But the amnesty does not apply to civilians or to crimes committed outside Uruguay. As of October of 2005, the government faced some protests because its poverty plan was not being implemented as quickly as had been hoped, but Vázquez still enjoyed an approval rating of about 65 percent in polls. Vázquez was elected to a five-year term, so he is expected to remain as president through March of 2010. By law, he cannot seek another term.

Sources

Periodicals

Colorlines Magazine, Fall 2005, p. 41.

Economist, July 25, 1992, p. 56; March 5, 2005, p. 38.

New York Times, November 29, 1999, p. A8; October 31, 2004, p. A18; November 1, 2004, p. A11; November 2, 2004, p. A8; March 1, 2005, p. A3; March 2, 2005, p. A9; June 1, 2005, p. A4; July 31, 2005, p. A4.

NotiSur—South American Political and Economic Affairs, October 21, 2005.

Wall Street Journal, November 2, 2004, p. A20; November 5, 2004, p. A13.

Online

"Actuacion," Presidencia, Republica Oriental del Uruguay, http://www.presidencia.gub.uy/_ web/pages/pres03.htm (November 13, 2005).

"Curriculum vitae," Presidencia, Republica Oriental del Uruguay, http://www.presidencia.gub.uy/_ web/cab_menus/pres01.htm (November 13, 2005).

"Uruguay elects left-wing leader," BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/3968755. stm (November 13, 2005).

Erick Trickey



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