Leftist Sworn In as Uruguay Leader

Times Staff Writers

Tabare Vazquez, a leftist former cancer specialist, was inaugurated as Uruguay’s president Tuesday, promising to bring help to the poor in a country still recovering from the worst recession in its history.

Vazquez, who was raised in an impoverished neighborhood of Montevideo as the son of an oil refinery worker, said he would move quickly to implement a $100-million “social emergency” program to aid the indigent and unemployed.

“We promised changes and we will bring them,” Vazquez said in his inaugural address. He said his government would seek “progressive and responsible changes ... benefiting those who need them to reach a life of dignity.”

Though Uruguay historically has been one of Latin America’s most affluent and literate societies, a third of the population now lives below the poverty level.


Vazquez, 65, won an October election that brought a resounding victory to his center-left Broad Front-Progressive Encounter coalition, which took control of both houses of Congress. Its win broke the long monopoly on power held by the National and Colorado parties.

“I’m 35 years old and I’m out of work, so I need things to get better,” said Norma Viera, one of the thousands who took to the streets Tuesday to celebrate the inauguration.

“This is a very emotional moment for us, because of all the years our people have suffered.”

In 2002, the lowest point in Uruguay’s recession, the economy shrank 11%. The official unemployment rate hit 20%, and about 100,000 people left the country in search of work. In the last year, however, the country has seen a strong recovery.


“We’re optimists, we think he’ll make good on his promises,” said Alvaro Herrera, who attended the inauguration with his baby girl.

“I never voted for the left before, but this time I did because I agreed with what a lot of people were saying: Our situation was desperate.”

Though he is a longtime socialist, early indications are that Vazquez, like other South American leftists brought to power in recent years, will choose a path of caution and fiscal prudence.

The most radical act of his first days in office is expected to be the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba. The countries broke off ties in 2002 after the government of Jorge Batlle criticized Cuba’s human rights record.


Cuban President Fidel Castro was expected to attend the inauguration, but canceled at the last minute for health reasons, Uruguayan officials said.

Still, the inauguration brought together many of the left, center-left and populist leaders who now rule South American countries, including Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Chile’s Ricardo Lagos and Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

“This is going to be a moderate-left government that puts emphasis on doing what is practical,” said Gerardo Caetano, a political science professor at the University of the Republic in Montevideo, the capital.

“Vazquez is going to look a lot more like Lula or Lagos than Chavez.”


Chavez is a charismatic populist who has tangled both with the United States and with much of Venezuela’s middle and upper class.

Lagos is a socialist who has been faithful to many of the free-market ideas put in place in his nation by one of Latin America’s most notorious dictators, Augusto Pinochet.

Lula, a former trade unionist, has faced sharp criticism from the radical wing of his Workers Party, but earned kudos from the financial community for sticking to the budgetary targets established by the International Monetary Fund.

Vazquez, too, has said he will respect the fiscal austerity targets set by the IMF in an agreement signed by Batlle, the outgoing president.


“While we comply with our [financial] obligations, we will seek a relationship of mutual respect” with the nation’s creditors, Vazquez said in his speech.

Among the leaders of his Broad Front coalition is Jose Mujica, a former leader of the Tupamaro guerrillas who a generation ago fought against Uruguay’s military dictatorship. Mujica long ago renounced violence and is seen as a key force for moderation. On Tuesday, Mujica took the oath as minister of agriculture.

“He is a widely loved figure and is responsible for bringing the most radical sectors of the Broad Front to a position of compromise,” said Caetano, the professor.

In the days before the inauguration, Vazquez signed a “governability” accord in which leaders of the Broad Front and the country’s opposition parties agreed to several domestic and foreign policy goals.


The official United States delegation to the inauguration was led by Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.

Tobar reported from Buenos Aires and D’Alessandro from Montevideo.