MONTEVIDEO: Across Latin America, comrades and caudillos are supposedly consigned to the dustbin of history. Only Cuba holds out against the continent's push toward democracy and open economies. Marx, however, is far from dead; not least in Uruguay, and perhaps not elsewhere. Jorge Batlle, taking office as President March 1, must bear this in mind.
In last year's presidential elections, Tabaré Vázquez, the Left's charismatic leader, easily won the first round, though not by enough votes to avoid a second round run off. Suspense gripped the country. Jorge Batlle, representing the long dominant Colorado party, needed solid support from the rival Blanco party to overcome Vázquez. After 150 years of feuding, that support seemed as likely as the Capulets rescuing the Montagues.
Called "red" and "white" after the colored ribbons on their hats – worn since the 1830s to avoid being shot at by one's own side – the Colorados and Blancos are nowadays divided by little ideologically. But could ancestral wounds be forgotten? No one knew. Pollsters predicted a technical draw.
Fear of the Left overcame history's open wounds: Batlle won by 7%, implying that almost all Blancos flocked to him. Uruguay's voters divided along lines of ideology, not old loyalties. That divide is likely to deepen, and be repeated at the next election. But – and here's the rub – next time there may be no second round. Statisticians suggest that, on a ceteris paribus basis, the Left will attain an absolute majority in the first round in five years.What sort of a Left is on the march in Uruguay? The Left's rank and file is faceless, with Communists, former guerrillas, and other radical fellow travelers marching side-by-side with a moderate majority of Social and Christian Democrats. Unlike in Chile, where modernized Socialists recently secured the presidency for the first time since the coup against Allende, even Uruguay's moderate Leftists cling to a passionate militancy, Cuba, and Che Guevara.