4 November 2004 Edition

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Former guerrilla party brings change to Uruguay's Government

Tens of thousands of people celebrated in the streets after Tabare Vazquez was elected Uruguay's President on Monday 1 November. The election of Vazquez shows that Latin America's people are decidedly turning to the left when it comes to finding solutions to poverty and inequality. Vazquez's candidacy was supported by Venezuela's President Chavez, and many see in the new Uruguayan leader a figure similar to that of Lula, the Brazilian Workers' Party president.

Official results gave Vazquez's coalition of forces, which includes former guerrilla fighters, 50.7% of Sunday's presidential vote, just more than the 50% plus one he needed to avert a runoff. Some 30,000 ballots remained to be counted before the Court of Elections could confirm his victory, but his two main rivals have conceded and Vazquez declared victory for himself and his coalition, which took control of the two-chamber parliament.

Jose Mújica, who served seven years of solitary confinement back in the 1970s for his leadership of the Tupamaro Guerrilla Movement, has been the key in the election of Vazquez. Mujica won more votes than any other senator and his Popular Participation Movement won more votes than any other party. Nearly one in five Uruguayans voted for Mujica's party, built on the remnants of the Tupamaros, who were crushed by the dictatorship in 1973.

Vazquez's victory breaks a 179-year stranglehold the Colorado and National parties have held on the presidency since Uruguay's independence from Spain in 1825. Analysts agree that the vote amounted to a rejection of the free-market economic policies behind recent economic troubles. The current President, Jorge Batlle, had been widely criticised for pursuing closer ties with the United States in response to the economic collapse that hit neighbouring Argentina three years ago and quickly spilled over to Uruguay, nearly bringing down a financial system that had, following US advice, opened itself up to the outside world.

And while the Front has backed away from its support of an Argentine-style default on the country's foreign debt, Vázquez has said he will insist that the International Monetary Fund ease up on Uruguay.

But da Silva's example also illustrates the pitfalls of promising profound, almost immediate, change and then failing to deliver. In municipal elections on Sunday 31 October, his Workers' Party lost not only in São Paulo, Brazil's largest city and the party's birthplace, but also in Porto Alegre, a onetime stronghold where the Workers' Party had been in power for 16 years.

Referendum halts water privatisation

Uruguayan voters also approved a constitutional reform that defines water as a public good and guarantees civil society participation at every level of management of the country's water resources, finishing with speculative moves towards the privatisation of natural resources.

More than 60% of voters came out in favour of introducing a constitutional clause stating that "water is a natural resource essential to life" and that access to piped water and sanitation services are "fundamental human rights". Socialist President-elect Tabaré Vázquez was one of the advocates of the constitutional reform.

The referendum, unique in the world, "sets a key precedent for the protection of water worldwide, by enshrining these principles into the national constitution of one country by means of direct democracy", says a letter by the environmental group Friends of the Earth International, signed by 127 organisations from 36 different countries. The groups underline that the constitutional amendment "secures the protection and sovereignty of this natural resource against attacks from transnational corporations transcending the national limits of Uruguay and setting a strong political precedent for the whole region".

Activists say that in just a few years time, a handful of companies will control almost 75% of all water for human consumption in the world, as an increasing number of governments privatise water and sewerage services.

The International Monetary Fund and World Bank have actively encouraged the privatisation of water resources in the developing South, making privatisation a condition for granting loans.

Water privatisation has been loudly opposed in several Latin American countries, including Argentina, Chile and Bolivia, and transnational corporations have sometimes been forced to pull out. But Uruguay's referendum has set a historical precedent, not only in the region, but in the world.

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