“Celebrate, Uruguayans, celebrate. Victory is yours.” That was how the new Uruguayan president-elect, Tabare Vazquez, addressed his followers after his victory in October's elections.
Uruguayans were celebrating for two reasons. Through a national referendum, they had become the first country to outlaw water privatization by direct democracy and to declare water a “constitutional right.” And, for the first time in 170 years, the two-party system of Colorados and Blancos, who many said had become indistinguishable from one another, had ceded victory to a third party—the leftist coalition Frente Amplio (Broad Front), led by Vazquez.
The constitutional amendment, approved by 60 percent of the voters, guarantees the participation of water users in every aspect of management and declared water a “public good” that would never be privatized.
The water referendum and the election of Vazquez are among the signs of Latin America's turn away from the IMF and World Bank's free-market economic policies. These institutions have encouraged, and sometimes insisted upon, privatization of national resources by transnational companies as a prerequisite for loans to developing countries.
In Cochabamba, Bolivia, last year, residents who were spending nearly half their wages on water took to the streets to successfully protest water privatization by the Bechtel Corporation. In Argentina, Brazil, and Bolivia, voters rejected candidates who support neoliberal policies in favor of center leftists who have promised more national control over natural resources.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in January signed a decree to gradually eliminate the country's giant estates, turning Venezuela's four-year-old land reform law into a practical reality. President Chavez said that less than 5 percent of the country's owners hold nearly 80 percent of the land.
Uruguay, once considered the Switzer?land of South America, with economic stability and a highly developed welfare state, followed Argentina into economic collapse in 2002, with unemployment shooting up to 23 percent, poverty engulfing 40 percent of its population, and thousands leaving the country.
Like other South American countries, it also suffered the results of the U.S.-backed “dirty wars” of the 1970s, in which political activists were killed, imprisoned, disappeared, and exiled. Thousands of Uruguayans who had gone into exile returned to the country this year to take part in the historic election and referendum.
This tiny country has been a trailblazer before. It instituted free public education before England, women's suffrage before France, and the eight-hour work day before the United States.Lisa Gale Garrigues is a YES! contributing editor.