Even by the standards applied to Latin America, Uruguay is under-reported in the English-speaking world. If it is mentioned at all, it is in terms of the battle of the River Plate (the war movie, more often than the actual event), or the Tupamaros, an alliance of agrarian and middle-class rebels whose strategy of urban guerrilla warfare brought their country close to a revolutionary situation in the late 1960s and, according to some cynics, ‘put Uruguay on the map’.

Yet it is in South America’s smallest republic that the strongest resistance to the regionally dominant ideology of ‘market reforms’ is taking place and the left is the main beneficiary of this resistance. Uruguay is, perhaps, one of the only places where the left is making sustained electoral progress without either presenting itself in bland, media-friendly packaging or chasing after an elusive ‘rainbow’ coalition of disparate minority interests. The strength of the Uruguayan left is indeed in its old-fashioned resilience, its refusal to accept what many regard as the inevitable trappings of modernity: privatization and the irreversible decline of the welfare state. And this strategy appears to be working. In November 1994, the candidate of the Encuentro Progresista, Tabaré Vázquez, polled 30.1 per cent, the highest vote for any individual candidate but (under electoral vagaries to be explained below) not enough for victory.footnote1 The victorious Colorado candidate, former President Julio María Sanguinetti, spent most of the election campaign competing with the left for the vote against neo-liberal ‘reform’.

Uruguay’s left, therefore, speaks the language of conservatism and stands in direct opposition to radical change. In so doing, it does not carve out new political territory but steps into the area once occupied by the Colorados and Blancos, the two ‘traditional’ parties of Uruguayan politics. At the same time, however, it is introducing Uruguayans to a different style of politics which is community-based and decentralized. Uruguay is, by any standards, an unusual country. It has the longest democratic record in Latin America, but it is also the most uncompromisingly unitary of states. It led the region, and indeed the world, in welfare and secularizing legislation, and yet today it is probably a more conservative, machista society than Argentina or Brazil.footnote2 It has produced writers of the stature of Eduardo Galeano, and yet its people often display a remarkably defensive, parochial attitude towards matters of culture, deferring to Paris, London, Madrid and Buenos Aires.

For most of this century, Uruguay has been held up by academic observers and its own politicians as a democratic role model for Latin America. A succession of elected, civilian governments since 1903, a literacy rate of over 90 per cent and a generous system of social benefits combined to give the impression of a stable, integrated civil society. Politics were dominated by the two traditional parties, of which Lord Bryce, echoing Gilbert and Sullivan, observed: ‘A child is born a little Blanco or a little Colorado, and rarely deserts his colour.’footnote3 These were loose coalitions of interests, based on historical loyalties rather than ideology. Even now, Uruguayans like to compare the Colorados and Blancos with the Democratic and Republican parties of the United States. Smaller movements, mostly of the left, participated freely and openly in the political structure, while a well-informed electorate opted repeatedly for moderation and compromise. Uruguayan women won the right to vote in 1934 (two years before France) and in the same year homosexual relationships between consenting adults were discreetly decriminalized.footnote4 Unlike neighbouring Argentina, there was no military conscription and the rhetoric of militarism was refreshingly absent from political debate. The armed forces themselves, recruited largely from the less sophisticated regions of the interior, played a marginal role in national life. Again unlike Argentina, the military (with the possible exception of the air force) was regarded as a low-status procession. In 1933, when a temporary constitutional crisis arose in Montevideo, President Terra appealed not to the army but to the police and the fire brigade.

This idealized impression of Uruguayan politics may appear surprising in the light of subsequent developments. The 1970s witnessed the transformation of a state known for its tolerance and political openness into ‘the torture chamber of South America’. By 1975, the country that had once aimed to surpass Western Europe in advanced legislation had the world’s largest proportion of political detainees.footnote5 Paradoxically, the qualities that had seemed to contribute most to democracy’s success facilitated political repression. From 1973 to 1985, a self-styled gobierno militar-civil took advantage or Uruguay’s small size, homogeneity and urban-centredness to impose rigorous political censorship and social control. Citizens were classified ‘A’, ‘B’, or ‘C’ according to their political correctness in the eyes of the regime. The abuse of psychiatry against political detainees rivalled that of the Soviet Union in the era of Brezhnev.footnote6 What the military regime lacked in headline-grabbing brutality, it compensated for in subtle ruthlessness and a tenacious hold on political power. Its economic policy meanwhile veered between a reactionary corporatism of the classic fascist model and a frenzied proto-Thatcherite agenda reminiscent of Pinochet’s Chile.