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Celebrate, Uruguayans, celebrate!!

In an historical vote, leftist leader Tabare Vazquez won the presidential race in the South American country. It is the first time in the history of this 170 year nation that a non traditional party wins the elections. This victory costs the US another ally in Latin America.

In a presidential race that could be well compared with those historical victories of the European Popular Fronts of the thirties, Socialist leader Tabare Vazquez was Sunday elected president of Uruguay. Reliable exit polls confirmed Vazquez, from the leftist Frente Amplio, or Broad Front - a coalition of communists, moderate parties, Trotskyites and even former guerrilla chiefs- obtained 51% of the votes, against the 34% of Jorge Larranaga, from the traditional National Party.

Vazquez, a 64 year-old radiologist specializing in cancer treatment, will take office in January 2005, after leading an impressive campaign in which has promised to renegotiate country's foreign debt, extend social programs to fight poverty and place relations with South American neighbors ahead of those with the United States. As in the times when politics used to be a popular passion, Uruguayan masses followed the Broad Front in rallies that even gathered one third of the population in Montevideo, country's European looking capital and largest city.

Sunday's Vazquez victory confirms a pattern in the region, where during the past six years, leftist governments challenging U.S. policy in South America have come to power in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Venezuela. Now, Uruguay is likely to join the list of countries frustrating President Bush's hope for a hemisphere-wide free-trade deal by 2005.

After getting notice of the stunning victory, Vazquez appeared before an enthusiastic crowd of Uruguayans and thanked the extraordinary demonstration of support from his followers. He only said: "Celebrate, Uruguayans, celebrate".

Then, in a short statement before 600 journalists from all over the world, Vazquez promised to “honour people’s mandate for the happiness of the Uruguayans”. Communist senator Marina Arismendi, confirmed to PRAVDA.Ru: “There is a popular government in Uruguay”, which will take over in March 2005.

The leftist government of Uruguay

In a news conference on Friday, Vazquez had said his top priority will be "the fight against poverty and ease country's social emergency". Around 30% of the 3.4 million population lives in poverty as almost 15% is unemployed. Vazquez also promised to reinitiate diplomatic ties with Communist Cuba, which where broke up by current conservative President, Jorge Batlle, in 2000.

In declarations to PRAVDA.Ru, Daniel Astori, incumbent minister of Economy, confirmed Uruguay will ask foreign creditors to renegotiate the $13 billion foreign debt. "We believe they will understand us", said he.

On the other hand, the former leader of the Tupamaros guerrilla group, who sounds for taking the Production Ministry and holds the majority of the votes within the Frente Amplio, Senator Pepe Mujica, said that even when Uruguay is a small nation, "it has a great potential of integration within the Mercosur trade bloc".

In declarations to PRAVDA.Ru, Mujica rejected any possibility of rupture among the different forces that form the Frente Amplio. "There is no danger. We are a 40 year old political force and we believe in internal debate and joint actions", he commented. Mujica made clear that from now on, Uruguay will put at the top of the list the fight against poverty. "We will renegotiate our foreign debt, but settle as soon as possible our internal debt with our poor".

Vazquez, in turn, who lost to Batlle in a runoff in 1999, is patterning himself after Brazil's leftist president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. He promises an open economy but with a new covenant to help Uruguay's poor.

Uruguay, where politics are a popular passion

According to sources in the Broad Front, no less than 50.000 Uruguayans living abroad returned to their country to vote. Most of them came from Argentina, where a 300.000 colony lives, but also many found their way from Brazil and Chile. A group crossed the Brazilian border by walk, spending 25 days to make Uruguay's capital, as some others arrived in riding bicycles from Chile, which is some 1.500 kilometres West.

Claudio, a 23 year-old student voted for the Broad Front. "We need a change, we need a hope for our lives after decades of conservative ruling", he told PRAVDA.Ru. In turn, Maria, a 45 year old waiter, voted for the National Party. "I always voted for them. Leaders of the Frente Amplio are quite aggressive people. Vazquez may be a good physician, but is not a politician", she remarks.

Comments like these could be heard all over Montevideo in the last weeks. In this traditionally democratic country, where politics are little less than a popular passion, even teenagers debated over elections at great level and nobody remained aside.

Hernan Etchaleco
Montevideo
Uruguay