Socialist Uruguay Dawns; Vazquez Rule Tilts Policies toward Castro, Away from U.S

Article excerpt

Byline: Kelly Hearn, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

COLONIA, Uruguay - In his opening weeks as Uruguay's first socialist president, Tabare Vazquez has mirrored the economic orthodoxy of his centrist predecessor while making populist political gestures, especially to labor unions and the poor.

Mr. Vazquez, 65, an oncologist, heads the leftist coalition Frente Amplio (Broad Front, in Spanish). He was sworn in March 1, ending 180 years of two-party rule.

His election in October produced an epidemic of euphoria in this town and throughout the tiny nation of more than 3 million. It also bolstered the so-called "pink tide" of leftist governments taking power in several Latin American nations disillusioned with U.S. policies and the Bush administration's preoccupation with war and terrorism.

Coalition widens role

The political groundswell that propelled Mr. Vazquez to the presidency spread his coalition's reach into rural provinces. This month, local elections catapulted Frente Amplio leaders to power in eight provinces, leaving Uruguay's traditional parties - the Colorado and the National parties - in charge of the 11 other provinces. Before that, the Colorado and National parties ruled all but one of Uruguay's 19 provinces.

Leading a party that includes Marxist Tupamaro guerrillas who battled the Uruguayan state in the 1960s and '70s, Mr. Vazquez began his term by reactivating diplomatic ties with Cuba that had been cut by President Jorge Batlle, a Washington ally from the centrist Colorado Party.

Political observers say Mr. Vazquez's symbolic gesture to Fidel Castro indicates the likely tone of future relations with the United States, which they think will be more distanced than Mr. Batlle's, but nonetheless amiable.

Return to tradition

"I foresee a return to the mainstream foreign and trade policy Uruguay had before the Batlle administration, which was more an exception than the rule," said Ernesto Talvi, director of the Center for the Study of Research and Social Affairs (CERES) in Montevideo.

"You won't see anything remotely similar to an alignment with more extremist or populist elements. We are going to revert to a more traditionally Uruguayan style - that is, gradual policies and moderate conduct of foreign policy, with an eye to regional arrangements and closer ties to Europe.

Mr. Batlle favored the U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), but Uruguayan political observers say Mr. Vazquez will steer foreign and trade policy through Mercosur, the regional economic bloc comprising Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.

TV venture backed

"This will mean that, to some degree, Vazquez will be more distant from the United States than was Batlle," said Nestor Gandelman, director of the department of economics at ORT University in Montevideo, the second-largest higher-education institution in Uruguay.

Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, cited Uruguay's support of Telesur, a South American television venture pushed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, as evidence that Mr. Vazquez's foreign policy will be "venturesome." However, Mr. Birns said Uruguay ultimately will not take a confrontational stance toward Washington.

Fiscal orthodoxy backed

In October, Mr. Batlle signed a bilateral investment treaty with the United States intended to boost trade between the two countries, which in 2003 was $582 million. U.S. exports to Uruguay that year totaled $326 million, a 57 percent rise from 2002, while Uruguayan imports, principally agricultural products, amounted to $256 million. …