Uruguay: Discontent grows against government

August 30, 2008

On August 20, Uruguay's sole union confederation, the Inter-union Plenary of Workers–National Convention of Workers (PIT-CNT), organised its first 24-hour general strike since the centre-left President Tabare Vasquez, from the Frente Amplio (FA), was elected in 2005.

Involving a high participation of workers, the strike raised various economic and political demands — such as a greater redistribution of wealth via a minimum wage increase, a reduction in the work day, the redirection of 4.5% of GDP towards the education sector and for the annulment of the 1986 Expiry Act that gives amnesty to military and police officers who committed crimes during the 1973-85 military dictatorship.

Two days before, former agricultural minister and FA leader Jose Mujica announced his support for a referendum on the Expiry Act, despite public statements by Vasquez opposing the law's overturning.

Both events are signs of growing tensions within the ruling party — which unites various left forces with left-leaning Christian democrats and former members of the traditional parties — over the government's direction.

The coming to power of FA represented a milestone in Uruguayan politics. It ended 174 years of continuous power-sharing between the two traditional parties.

However, the FA government has been criticised for going down a similar path to that of Brazilian Workers' Party President Lula de Silva of implementing neoliberal policies.

While not the first strike action taken against the government (last year was a record year for labour conflicts), the decision to hold the first 24-hour strike under the Vasquez government was hotly disputed within the PIT-CNT — historically aligned with FA.

While the strongly pro-FA PIT-CNT executive secretariat voted in favour of merely a partial strike, their proposal was defeated in the broader representative table by an alliance of unions aligned with the radical left and sections of the Communist Party of Uruguay (PCU), who proposed stronger action to demonstrate discontent with the lack of progress by the FA government.

The FA's fifth congress in December had to go into recess due to lack of agreement.

While supporting a number of the measures taken by the government, the delegates opposed a free trade agreement with the US, supported an alliance with Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia and were in favour of annulling the Expiry Act.

While the congress reconvened in April, one fifth of delegates did not attend, reflecting the discontent among the grassroots of the party.

Three difference currents have emerged among the broad left.

The smallest is composed of groups such as the Movement March 26, which earlier this year broke with the FA, arguing it was no longer possible to remain within a party "that had abandoned the historic project of the left". Together with some tiny ultra-left groupings outside the FA, they are looking to form an alliance in the lead-up to next years' elections.

On the opposite end are social democratic and Christian democratic forces, led by Vasquez and former economy minister Danilo Astori, who are behind the government's pro-market and sometimes pro-US policies.

This group hopes to take Astori as FA's candidate to the next presidential elections, something strongly opposed by popular forces who see him as even further to the right of Vasquez.

The third force involves the majority of the grassroots of FA, the PCU, the Movement of Popular Participation (MPP, the most important current in FA), other groups within FA and some social movements, who want to see FA once again take up strong anti-imperialist positions and implement greater progressive policies and wealth redistribution.

The decision by Mujica, leader of the MPP and one of Uruguay's most popular political figures, to take a public stance over the Expiry Act has been interpreted as a challenge to the more conservative forces in FA as the June 2009 internal elections approaches.

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