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Frente Amplio headed for victory in Uruguay’s October 2024 elections?

Frente Amplio President, Fernando Pereira, interviewed by Latin America Bureau in New York



The Frente Amplio, formed in 1971 and made up of a consortium of political parties and movements, is a coalition not of consensus but of diversity, united by shared values, according to its president Fernando Pereira.

Pereira came to New York in April 2024 to participate in debates at Columbia and New York Universities as part of the election campaign. LAB caught up with the Frente Amplio leader and his vice-president Verónica Piñeiro at the headquarters of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) on Manhattan’s East Side on 4 April to find out how the Frente proposes to address some of the challenges the new government will face. These include the rise of the far-right, organised crime, educational under-achievement, persistent poverty and marginalisation, and the recognition of the country’s Indigenous heritage.

After four years out of power, Uruguay’s left-leaning Frente Amplio coalition is looking to regain control of the government that it held for 15 years under the administrations of President Tabaré Vázquez (2005-2010, 2015-2020) and José (Pepe) Mujica (2010-2015). 

Mujica was a former Tupamaro leader imprisoned for 14 years by Uruguay’s military. He became known as ‘the world’s poorest president’, for donating 90 percent of his presidential salary to charity, and for his frugal lifestyle. 

Uruguay has a presidential system of government, meaning that the Frente Amplio will be competing in both the presidential and parliamentary elections in October 2024. The two main Frente Amplio presidential candidate nominees in June 2024 are Carolina Cosse, mayor of Montevideo, and Yamandú Orsi, mayor of Canelones department.

We spoke to the leader Fernando Pereira to learn more.

The Frente Amplio: a convergence of values, not ideologies

In his exclusive interview with LAB, President of the Frente Amplio, Fernando Pereira, highlights the coalition’s achievements in its 15 years of power: in education, health, and welfare. In the measured and thoughtful style characteristic of Uruguayan politicians, he attributes the success of the coalition to its blend of unity and diversity, and respect for its members’ different ideological positions. ‘What unites us is a convergence of values and principles, not a political programme, [but] 53 years of unity…social justice, solidarity […] the struggle against inequality, the struggle against capitalism which does not resolve the problems of the majority […] 

Pereira stresses that the leadership of the Frente could not possibly represent all the parties within the alliance: ‘Precisely what unites us now is the Frente Amplio… When people ask which party we are from, we say “Frente Amplio”, not the name of any particular political party…in that way, all is resolved…’

The Frente Amplio is not about personalities, he says: ‘The term of a Frente Amplio president, however important they are, will come to an end. The Frente will outlast its leaders. The great leaders, such as Tabaré Vazquez, or Mariano Arana, are no longer with us, but the Frente Amplio is bigger than its leaders.’

Elected in 2022, Pereira himself is the first president of the Frente Amplio to come up through the ranks of the trade unions, which he regards as the driving force of the Frente, from the time of its formation in 1971 by General Líber Seregni.

The Frente Amplio was a product of the CNT, the National Trade Union Confederation, which evolved into the ‘Congreso del Pueblo’, the people’s congress, as Pereira describes it. Pereira himself is a former head of the teachers’ union, and leader of the PIT-CNT 2015-2021. The strength of the CNT, its magia or ‘genius’, according to Pereira, was that it was centralised under one leadership from 1966, to become the ‘best union federation in the whole of Latin America’ thanks to its culture of dialogue. Pereira explains that the group collectively designs policy through debates conducted by discussion groups: government by the people, for the people, as he sees it.

Later, the Frente Amplio brought together student unions, cooperatives, and neighbourhood organisations into one single political party, united by jointly held values and principles, a belief in solidarity, and in the productive sector. Over time, they drew in teachers’ unions, anarcho-syndicalists, social democrats, Christian socialists, and liberation theologians, as he described them. 

It brings Pereira immense pride that the Frente Amplio has lasted for 50 years – one quarter of the modern history of Uruguay since independence.

Frente Amplio’s new manifesto: Time for Hope, Time for the People

The key to the success of the Frente Amplio, and of Pereira himself, may be the politics of compromise and pragmatism, where consensus is reached through lengthy discussions. This ethos is reflected in the Frente Amplio’s hundred-page technocratic centrist manifesto, a Programme for 2025-2030 centred on the principles of human-rights based development, titled: ‘Bases Programáticas: Tiempos de Esperanza, Tiempos de la Gente’ and published in March 2024. 

Fernando Pereira and Verónica Piñero at the People’s Forum, New York, 2024. Photo: Linda Etchart

Revolutionary tendencies are barely detectable in the new manifesto: there is no mention of socialism. Pereira explains that the Frente Amplio’s policies reflect the ideological diversity of the parties of which it is constituted, a range of worldviews of the Uruguayan people who, in effect, govern from below through what could be called a genuine ‘participatory democracy’, as envisioned in 1971 by Seregni, whose motto was that the Frente Amplio ‘was born from the people, and is nourished by the people. 

So, where does the Frente Amplio stand in terms of a socialist agenda?Not all the parties in the Frente Amplio are socialist… not all of the Left in Uruguay is socialist… it is unimaginable that a socialist party could have the support of half of Uruguayan society. In terms of political realism, that is beyond the realm of possibility…what is possible is that some socialist ideas might be taken up in our programme… ideas of equality and better distribution of wealth through taxation, to improve the country’s score on the Gini coefficient index [a league table indicating countries’ income, wealth, and consumption inequality],’ Pereira states.

Pereira frequently refers to ‘generosity’, ‘amplitude’ and ‘humility’ in describing the Frente Amplio’s style of governance, which could be said to be aspiring towards ‘direct democracy’, government by plebiscite.

Legacy of dictatorship in Uruguay and the ongoing ‘pact of silence’

The crushing of the revolutionary Tupamaro movement in 1973, and the Uruguayan government’s involvement in the regional militaries’ Operation Condor against the Left in the region, led to 11 years of brutal dictatorship. Political opponents and activists were tortured and killed through to the late 1970s; human rights abuses continued into the 1980s. 

After the restoration of democracy in 1984, former human rights abusers were protected by an Amnesty law until it was lifted in 2011. Prosecutions of former military personnel were ongoing in 2024, as well as investigations into the whereabouts of nearly 200 ‘disappeared’ people, missing from the 1970s. 

Pereira has been outspoken against the impunity granted to those responsible for the disappearances, and the refusal to give information to families as to the whereabouts of the remains of their lost relatives. Each May in Montevideo and in towns across the country (as well as in Buenos Aires, Madrid, and Paris, where large numbers of Uruguayans live) there are marchas de silencio (silent marches) in commemoration of the disappeared.

Increasing numbers of young people are taking part in the marches, as on 20 May 2024, where many thousands gathered in Montevideo to say ‘Nunca más’, Never Again to State terrorism. Pereira calls for an end to the ‘pact of silence’ of the military personnel involved and himself called for the people to join the march on his Facebook page on 19 May, 2024:

‘Truth, justice, State Terrorism – never again. Tomorrow, 20 May, everyone to the silent demonstration.’

The rise of the far-right: is Uruguay affected by a ‘blue tide’ in Latin America?

The struggle against impunity has caused unrest among some elements of the military, which has contributed to the rise of the far-right Cabildo Abierto party which emerged in 2019 and quickly won a surprising number of election votes that same year. The party has attracted military personnel still under investigation for human rights abuses under the dictatorship, and many who reacted against the election and policies of the Frente Amplio administrations. 

Led by strongman, Guida Manini Ríos, a former general and commander of the armed forces in 2015-2019 who clashed with the Frente Amplio administrations and was dismissed,  the party encourages culture wars, a common tactic of far-right governments the world over, drawing in followers in reaction against progress in gender equality and LGBT rights. Manini Ríos has obstructed efforts by the families of the disappeared who continue to search for the remains of their relatives. 

Within this scenario, if the Frente Amplio succeeds in securing a majority in the parliamentary and presidential elections in October 2024, the new administration will have to confront the right-wing political and socio-economic environment which is re-emerging across the region, a counter-reaction to the ‘pink tide’ of Left party electoral victories in the 2000s. Chainsaw-wielding Javier Milei was elected to Argentina’s presidency in November 2023 while in Brazil, former president Jair Bolsonaro was still commanding large crowds of supporters into 2024, challenging the legitimacy of Lula da Silva’s presidency. 

LAB asked Pereira how the election of Javier Milei in Argentina and of Lula in Brazil may have affected Uruguay and the Frente Amplio. 

‘From a human rights and cultural point of view, the election of Javier Milei is a disgrace for Argentina, a tragedy for Latin America and for the whole world. It is very hard for the people of Argentina who now have to pay four times as much for goods than they did before. From the point of view of the Uruguayan economy, well, Uruguayans spent US$700 million in Argentina last year, because everything was much cheaper there: now they will have to spend that money in Uruguay…’

With regard to Brazil, ‘We celebrate Lula’s victory almost as if it were our own victory. We were there at the inauguration to discuss possible cooperation in the future. Lula’s victory signified for us a wind of hope,’ Pereira explains.

Uruguay’s vulnerability to global organised criminal networks

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The far-right’s recent gains in popularity, not least with the election of Nayib Bukele as president of El Salvador in 2019 and February 2024, are not altogether unrelated to the rise in organised crime on the continent since the early 2000s, attributable to the global expansion of markets for cocaine and for illegally traded commodities such as gold and timber. In the last year, events outside of Uruguay’s borders have begun to undermine the country’s security, which may ultimately impact upon its economy and society.

The growth of the cocaine market in Europe over recent years, combined with the effects of the 2016 peace accord signed with the FARC in Colombia, have impacted on the port of Montevideo, which has become a new site of interest for the continent’s narco-traffickers, along with the port of Madero in Argentina.

The expanding use of Montevideo as an export hub for cocaine shipments to Europe is reflected in a rise in local crime, and in the country’s murder rate, raising the spectre of the infiltration of narco-traffickers into the political system. The case of Sebastian Marset, one of the most powerful drug traffickers in the Southern Cone region who was issued with a Uruguayan passport in his own name in 2021, raised concerns over corruption at high levels of government, and led to the resignation of Uruguay’s foreign minister in 2023. Marset was still on the run from law enforcement in 2024: he was being sought by the security services in Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, and the United States.  

A rise in the power of the drug trafficking cartels in Latin America, the USA, and in parts of Europe, has contributed to a breakdown in law and order in Mexico, El Salvador, Ecuador, and Honduras, creating insecurity for ordinary people. This has led to calls for a crackdown on criminal gangs, in the style of the ‘mano dura’ hardline approach taken by President Bukele of El Salvador. Entire neighbourhoods of marginalised people have been indiscriminately imprisoned under Bukele, recalling the tactics employed by the military commanders during the dictatorships of the 1970s and early 1980s.

Fears of instability may benefit far-right parties

The Frente needs to increase its share of the vote from 48 percent to 50 percent of voters to ensure a victory in October. One of the Frente’s main challenges will be juggling its campaign focus. The Manifesto pledges to focus on holding former army officers accountable for crimes against humanity, but there is another pressing need: to address how narco-trafficking interests are penetrating the country’s poorest neighbourhoods.

In Uruguay, members of the marginalised communities who are experiencing poverty are the most vulnerable to being recruited into gangs and into the sale of narcotics, which draws them into contact with regional organised crime networks. The associated increase in violence, as has occurred in Ecuador, for example, has the potential to increase insecurity among law-abiding citizens, who may be swung to vote for a more hardline response to juvenile delinquency and higher levels of incarceration. The Frente Amplio’s approach to delinquency is to improve social welfare programmes and the country’s education, in contrast to the neoliberal policies of the Partido Nacional, which has cut back on social programmes.

Is democracy in Uruguay under threat? ‘This is one of the greatest challenges we face, drug-trafficking and money laundering. How to provide security for the people so that they can walk in their neighbourhoods. This cannot be separated from social questions of childhood and adolescence, the need for social changes in education, youth, social policies, in controlling crime,’ Pereira highlights.

‘Crime cannot be separated from acopio and lavado de activos: both the accumulation of wealth and money laundering impoverish our country,’ Pereira explains. 

‘The situation in Uruguay is not good in that sense: all the political parties need to act together to devise a state policy to guarantee security for the people and to counter narco-trafficking. It is more than just about crime, it is an economic question, it involves addressing social policies and the problem of money laundering. It requires policies on different fronts, not just on the security front. A strategy on which the Frente Amplio is already working.’ 

‘Although Uruguayan political parties are not yet, as far as I know, controlled by the narco-traffickers –who have a habit of invading politics through financing political parties in other countries–, urgent legislation is needed, a vote in parliament on the financing of political parties, so that they cease to need finance for their electoral campaigns; and private donations to political parties must be made illegal. At present, it is not a problem, but we have to take preventative action so that, if it were to happen, the politicians cannot say, ‘We did not know.’

‘We have to protect ourselves. It would be a disaster if narco-trafficking ended up corrupting the political system, as it has done in much of Latin America.’

The Frente Amplio’s environmental agenda and recognition of the country’s Indigenous heritage

In other Latin American regions, Narco trafficking has also brought with it environmental degradation. What are the current environmental challenges for the Frente Amplio?

‘Our priority is jobs, health, social programmes and public education, although we are increasingly cognisant that these cannot be achieved at the cost of destroying the places in which we live—the “casa común”, our common home.  We have to allow the producers to produce: we have to continue with the beef industry into the future and negotiate with the farmers. We have to raise consciousness, beginning with primary education, so that whole generations will protect biodiversity, the rivers and the animals.’

When questioned on the legacy of the Indigenous peoples of Uruguay, Pereira explains that Uruguayans are in denial concerning their Indigenous antecedents. 

‘If you were to do a survey among the Uruguayan population asking if there are any Indigenous people, almost 100 percent would say that there are none. Most people believe that the last four Indigenous [Charrúa] people died two hundred years ago, at the time of independence, in Paris. Yet the current President of the Chamber of Deputies, Frente Amplista Ana Rivera (incidentally, the first communist president of the parliament), when she took a DNA test, discovered that she was Indigenous.’ 

‘This is a challenge for us, that the Uruguayan people do not know that they (or we) are Indigenous: they don’t perceive of themselves as a nation to be Indigenous. In other countries in Latin America, the Indigenous peoples are clear to see: they have their own communities, their identity, their demands, their participation in society. It is a challenge for the Frente Amplio, within which we have had our own debates, to recognise ourselves, for Uruguay to recognise itself in its diversity.’

The recent past and the road ahead for the Frente Amplio: Uruguayan Presidential elections 2024

We asked Pereira why the Frente Amplio lost the elections in 2019 to Luis Lacalle Pou of the National Party and how the Frente hopes to win the elections in October 2024.

‘The Right was smarter than people thought, they had the tools, the resources, the logistics to conduct a very good campaign. The Frente Amplio was in power for three terms, but we lost touch with some of our base: with the environmentalists, with civil society organisations. You cannot afford to lose your social base, the people whose world you wish to transform.’

The Frente has long enjoyed majority support in Montevideo, but has lagged behind in the interior. In 2022, in an effort to win new voters, especially in rural areas, the Frente Amplio embarked upon a campaign to recruit supporters as militantes (activists), who would in turn go out into rural areas to increase the number of voters. By April 2024, they claim, they had increased the number of militantes from 7,000 to 20,000. Pereira and his team have since toured every national department to listen to and to reconnect with some of those who felt the party had lost touch with them. 

‘[Now] all the opinion polls say we will win,’ Pereira asserts.

‘Lacalle took the country in a different direction, but there were structural changes implemented by the Frente Amplio, such as in health care and education – with the plan Ceibal [the provision of a laptop to each child]– that Lacalle could not change…. 

‘You have to take into account the starting point: the Frente Amplio changed people’s lives completely in terms of income. It increased salaries by 60 percent over 15 years from 2004, and teachers’ salaries doubled, which did not happen in the rest of the Latin American continent. 

‘In their term of office, the Frente Amplio transformed healthcare: everyone has access to healthcare through public and private provision, from deductions in their salaries. The Frente Amplio improved access to schools near to where people live, they transitioned to clean electricity away from fossil fuels to renewable resources, through wind power and solar panels, people achieved a better quality of life… Is this socialism? No. But the Frente Amplio never claimed to be socialist, because it did not have that mandate from a majority; but yes, it has made progressive changes.’

Under Frente Amplio’s administrations, new taxes were introduced to enable the government to increase the education budget. ‘Those who earn more pay more’, according to Pereira; but that does not go far enough, he says: tax has also to be levied on those who have more, not just those who earn more [taking into account different kinds of wealth].

There is still real poverty and deprivation in Uruguay, with up to 20 percent of the country’s children living below the poverty line in 2023

The Uruguayan economy is expanding, thanks in part to social democratic policies implemented by Frente Amplio administrations beginning in 2005, in the context of exports of beef, soybeans, rice, and, more recently, paper pulp, which has become the country’s most valuable export. Uruguay now qualifies as a high-income country, according to the World Bank. It had the highest gross national income per capita in Latin America in 2022. Yet, despite its recently regained reputation as a model of democracy, peace, stability and development, the neoliberal policies of the right-wing administration of President Luis Lacalle Pou since 2020 have increased income inequality. 

There is still real poverty and deprivation in Uruguay, with up to 20 percent of the country’s children living below the poverty line in 2023. According to UNICEF, while 10 percent of the adult population lived in poverty, child poverty was at 19.4 percent in Uruguay last year, with 20 percent of households with children under five not having sufficient food, and with 3.3 percent of them facing severe food insecurity.

…it is a cultural battle that we might lose, but we must take the risk.

This affects education. Despite the successive Frente Amplio administrations’ efforts to improve the education system, there are still major deficiencies in educational achievement. ‘Education in Uruguay is universal, obligatory, free, secular, and democratic’, Pereira says, yet his deepest sadness, after 36 years as an educator, is that ‘20 percent of children in the country go to school, but unfortunately, school does not go through them’: the education system continues to be inadequate for the 20 percent of children living in poverty. 

Children are born into deprivation, with their wellbeing and health compromised by receiving poor nutrition. Pereira stresses the importance of a child’s early years, long before they enter school. The Frente Amplio has to rise to this challenge, he says, ‘it is a cultural battle that we might lose, but we must take the risk.’

Dr Linda Etchart is associate lecturer in Human Geography at Kingston University, and a regular contributor to the Latin America Bureau Environment Defenders Series. She is the author of Global Governance of the Environment, the Rights of Nature and Indigenous Peoples: Extractive Industries in the Ecuadorian Amazon. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022.