Uruguay: Not a "Buffering Society" anymore?

July 12, 2017

“Que no estamos en el paraíso,

eso es algo que se puede apreciar,

cuando veo unos botijas pidiendo,

cuando veo un bichicome pasar.

Hay quien dice ‘esto es el culo del mundo,’

hay quien dice ‘como el Uruguay no hay,’

yo he cambiado tantas veces de idea,

que al final ya no sé qué pensar.”

Jorge Nasser


While some societies seem to be -and probably are- more narcissistic tan others, belief in the uniqueness of one’s country may be among the most common social phenomena. While the evaluations attached to that belief in each case are always a matter of debate, the belief in itself is understandable: every country becomes unique -and interesting- once you look close enough. Narcissism being just a symptom of parochialism, every country becomes on the other hand considerably less unique once you learn a bit about the ones surrounding it. “All peoples are chosen … for some purpose,” a Jewish friend of mine used to joke.

Things being like that, there is probably no country lacking a repertoire of metaphors coined with the purpose of capturing in a few words the respective quintessential feature -the essence of the “national soul,” so to speak. And a lot can be learned from both the blind spots and the grains of truth they usually mix in variable doses. No matter what Uruguayans prefer to think -and cyclothymic oscillations like the one expressed in the epigraph are by no means uncommon-, theirs is no exception.

Indeed, during the last century both foreigners and natives produced quite a few formulae meant to tap the keys of “uruguayanness.” As is usually the case, the most obscenely self-congratulatory ones -La Suiza de América (“The Switzerland of South America”)- are not especially penetrating. More ambiguous ones are more revealing, particularly if combined. Thus, for example, being the land where Naides es mas que naides (“Nobody is more than anybody else”), attributed to a paisano asked by an immigrant for good reasons to settle down in Uruguay, points to a very tangible egalitarian ethos that translates into aversion for social hierarchies, but that can also result mesocratic to the point of suffocation. As Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti once famously said, En Uruguay hay dos cosas que no se perdonan: una es el fracaso, la otra el éxito (“There are two things that Uruguayan society cannot forgive: one is failure, the other is success”). In the same direction pointed George Pendle, an astute English observer who defined it as país del más o menos (“The land of more or less”). And of course, there is also the reference to its scale as the país petiso (“midget country”). Beyond mere matters of size, scale would have combined with egalitarianism and other factors to produce a país de cercanías (“country of closeness”) not only in terms of geographic, but also of social space. Closeness would in turn have produced a sociedad hiperintegradora (“hyper-integrating society”), also hypothesized to be amortiguadora (“buffering”) –meaning that the main tensions and conflicts that successively marked the history of all Latin American countries have presented themselves in Uruguay in watered-down versions and with diminished disruptive impact.

Some of these metaphors may come to mind as one reviews a currently ongoing political scandal around Vice-President Raúl Sendic. In the context of a political system that finds the generational replacement of its leaders particularly difficult, Sendic had installed himself as one of the young aspirants with most promising perspectives. Son and namesake of the founder and historical leader of the guerrilla movement Tupamaros, he initially gained political visibility within the Movimiento de Participación Popular (MPP, "movement of popular participation"), an important component of the governing coalition Frente Amplio (FA, "broad front"). In 2009, he both contributed to and benefited from the election of José Mujica -the MPP’s most charismatic and prestigious leader- as president of the republic. Enthusiastically sponsored by both president Mujica and first lady/senator Lucía Topolansky -former companions in arms of his late fater-, he was placed in an important position in the Mujica administration (2010-2015) as president of ANCAP -the stated-owned oil-refining company, crucial both for the Uruguayan economy in general and for governmental finances in particular. The designation provided a very valuable springboard to boost Sendic’s both as supra-partisan asset within Frente Amplio, and as potential candidate with national projection. The bet proved sound at both levels, and Sendic became Tabaré Vázquez’s partner in the winning ticket of the 2015 presidential election -positioning himself among the frontrunners for an eventual presidential candidacy in 2020.

However, only a year and a half into the second Vázquez administration, a chain of episodes is making the future look less promising for the Vice-President. First was the issue of his licenciatura, when doubts were expressed about whether he had actually earned the academic credentials required to present himself as Licenciado (owner of a university degree, in this case in Human Genetics) –at best a misunderstanding to which he had acquiesced in multiple occasions. The affair run for several weeks, during which Sendic and different co-partisans successively attempted a series of inconsistent arguments to demonstrate that he had indeed completed his degree. In the end, the lack of any sort of document certifying such claim left him in an awkward position. More serious, however, have been the ramifications of a parliamentary investigation -with judicial ramifications- of the financial mismanagement of ANCAP during Sendic’s presidency of the company. As the investigation advanced, evidence emerged that pointed beyond the less than arguable soundness of a series of managerial decisions, to the Vice-President’s illegal use of corporate credit cards for personal expenses. Once again, the poverty and inconsistency of the arguments he presented in his defense have been Sendic’s main enemy.

Now, somebody might observe that Sendic’s wrongdoings pale when compared with episodes of corruption contemporarily taking place in other countries of the region -beginning with Uruguay’s closest neighbors. Part of it is a matter of significant differences in terms of the pervasiveness of corruption -for years, Uruguay has consistently followed Chile and Costa Rica at the top of regional rankings of transparency. It is not just a matter of frequency; even when corruption has actually happened, both the sheer the volume of the transactions and the pervasiveness of the networks involved seemed to be in Uruguay of an almost qualitatively different magnitude than, say, in Brazil, Argentina, or Paraguay. Should the difference send us back to scale? Arguably anything eventually happening in the país petiso is likely to be smaller, to begin with, in purely absolute terms -and a quick comparison of the volume of its exports with those of any European country of comparable surface would reveal that it is not just a matter of territorial extension.

Should we expect the “buffering society” to cushion the political effects? The answer should probably be  a qualified yes regarding systemic damage. Not that Uruguayans do not mind corruption, or have not experienced the same trends of declining trust in their politicians and political institutions that these days seem to be onsubstantial with democracy. Nevertheless, Uruguayan democracy can count on reservoirs in legitimacy thick enough for this impact not to trigger any sort of massive rejection of the party system and its professionals. The buffering effect, on the other hand, would rest no only on relatively high levels of legitimacy, but also on the fact that, historically, citizens have not been in Uruguay particularly predisposed to go on the streets for political purposes other than voting –save for some exceptional circumstances, like opposing a coup or a dictatorship. Besides, the higher disposition to mobilization is to be found among militant supporters of the government in general and of the MPP in particular. Now, the fact that massive protests of generalized discontent towards political leaders are not likely does not equal total absence of expansive wave –the question is how far it can be expected to reach. It would be excessive to expect these episodes to mark the end of Sendic’s political career, but its future does certainly appear less brilliant than it did 18 months ago. There are at least two important reasons for this forecast: first, the evident –if not necessarily explicit and public- disapproval that his mistakes have met inside the Frente Amplio; second, strategic considerations of his chances of capturing the decisive floating votes that will end deciding the election.

What is not yet clear is the damage Frente Amplio may experience even without Sendic. Here the crucial variable is usually less the occurrence of corruption in itself –-something to which, after all, no party is immune- than the boldness of the involved party’s reaction. In this regard, both government and party seem to have opted, so far at least, for a defense of the Vice-President. This is not surprising per se –closing ranks is, in this type of situation, the almost Pavlovian reaction to expect from any party. But the strategy finds a serious problem in the lack of consistency between the positions organically expressed by FA and individually by influential co-partisans, and the arguments presented by the accused himself in his own defense –not precisely a paradigm of clarity or coherence. Thus, a year and a half after the FA’s plenario decidedly supported Sendic during the degree affair, and Senator Lucia Topolanski claimed to have personally seen the document, the former opted for a mea culpa and admitted that declaring a degree he did not actually own had been a mistake. Within the partisan orbit, Sendic requested to appear before the FA’s Tribunal de Conducta Politica (TCP, Ethics Committee), which heard his defense before complete evidence against him had been provided. As journalist Gonzalo Ferreira recently observed, a premature decision without examination of most recently presented evidence would undermine the TCP’s credibility; however, a more delayed decision questioning Sendic (who so far has not been able to present a convincing explanation) would put the government in a particularly awkward position.

Indeed, President Tabaré Vázquez, after advocating for Sendic during the last meeting of his ministerial cabinet, took a good protion of a press conference to criticize the attitude of press and opposition toward him. The defense was nevertheless cautious. Vázquez only targeted the form, abstaining from making statements on the content of the accusations, regarding which he recommended deferring judgments until judicial investigations produce a formal verdict –in the words of Alfonso Lessa, a respected political analyst, he defended his Vice-President without supporting him. The president literally typified the style predominating among Sendic’s accusers as bullying. What could at first glance look as a very weak argument actually reflects, another political journalist wrote, an accurate intuition that the fury coloring the statements of some members of the opposition may end working against their goals. A winning fighter that begins to humiliate and kick his opponent on the floor, the argument goes, may end leading the audience to sympathize with the fighter perceived as suffering excessive punishment. We could even hypothesize that some traits of the pais de cercanias are likely to work in favor of that outcome, since the perception of political leaders by their fellow citizens is among the dimensions affected by the general contraction of social distance caused by the combination of small scale and egalitarianism. In fact, foreign academic visitors are often shocked, for example, by how easy it is in Uruguay to get to interview former presidents –and not just for doctoral candidates, but for undergraduate students working on their college papers. (The possibility even exists of some of them personally answering the phone when one calls to make the request…).

Its grain of truth notwithstanding, the hypothesis can also be misleading. There is no need to buy the conspiracy theory presented by Sendic to his fellow citizens a few days ago to notice the levels of acrimony permeating some of the exchanges of heavy ammunition between government and opposition about his personal honesty. Perhaps that was the main concern behind Vázquez’s warning about the risks of autofagia -a medical term referring to the phenomenon of certain organisms that consume their less useful organs in order to survive extended periods of starvation. In other words, the danger that the currently ongoing crossfire turns into a process of “cannibalization” that in the end not only damages the image and legitimacy of the political elite as a whole but also contaminates citizens’ perceptions of democratic politics itself. Then again, a quick glance at neighboring countries would suffice to make the suggestion sound alarming in excess –after all, Uruguayan politics remains above the regional –and not only regional- average levels of civility. However, the Sendic affair is not relevant in itself, but as a point in a curve. Of course, it may be just another example of the general increase in the theatrical intensity of politics in times of impoverished programmatic and ideological debates. However, parallel curves can be identified beyond the political realm: the sensation of a general deterioration in the general cordiality of social interaction is exceptional among visitors returning to Uruguay after some time. Maybe it is time we started asking ourselves if the multiple fractures that have outdated the metaphor of the hyper-integrated society are not also dismantling its buffering capacity…

About Author(s)

Javier Vazquez D'Elia's picture
Javier Vázquez-D'Elía
Javier is Coordinating Editor on Panoramas. He received a PhD in Political Science from the University of Pittsburgh, specializing in Comparative Politics and Political Theory. His main areas of interest are the politics of social policy reform, state formation, democratic governance, and comparative methodology.