Uruguay’s Republic under Siege

Corte Suprema de Justicia de Uruguay
The Supreme Court has been a check on the authoritarian tendencies of the Mujica government. (Wikimedia)

EspañolInternational observers often include Uruguay among the group of Latin-American countries governed by moderate progressives. They highlight the significant differences that exist between Uruguay and the countries of the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA), the regional commercial bloc led by Venezuela and Cuba. And most have welcomed José Mujica’s evolution from guerrilla of the 1960s and 70s to a leader who has adapted to the rules of democracy.

In some ways, this view of reality is correct. However, many times what’s “visible” actually masks the processes that lurk below the surface. This is why a very close investigation is needed to truly understand the state of Uruguayan governmental affairs.

The Broad Front (FA) is the political force that has governed Uruguay for the past 10 years. It is a coalition of progressive political parties that originally came together to gain political influence, and now looks to maintain it without interruption. They have fervently pursued this objective, masking divisions within the party that have occurred along the way.

The Broad Front represents a merger of modern progressives with radicals who long to return to the era of the 1960s. The former is lead by Vice President Danilo Astori, who is also tasked with managing the Uruguayan economy. The latter is made up of the Mujica-led Movement for Popular Participation (MPP), the Communist Party, as well as smaller political organizations.

Clashes between these two factions are frequent. Internal documents reveal the MPP’s commitment to pursue the “revolution” and “socialism,” while the Broad Front’s more moderate members decry the imposition of this ideology on the rest of the party.

This complicated situation makes it very difficult for outsiders to completely understand the internal politics of our country. In the words of Frédéric Bastiat, outsiders are unable to understand “what they don’t see” because reality is obscured by “what they do see.”

Uruguay’s Institutions versus the Broad Front

If until now Mujica has been unable to reveal his true face, which is much more inclined toward Chavismo, it is a testament to the strength of Uruguayan republican institutions. On more than one occasion the Supreme Court has prevented Mujica and Broad Front legislators from violating the rights of citizens by ruling their proposals unconstitutional, including the Tax on the Concentration of Rural Properties (ICIR).

Mujica has not hidden his dissatisfaction with these checks on his power. This is why he has expressed a desire to reform the Constitution. Mujica has attempted to appeal to the emotions of the populace, and gain popular support for his reformist intentions. However, the truth is the Supreme Court ruled this law unconstitutional because it represented excessive taxation, and an infringement on the financial autonomy of property owners.

The law does very little to protect landowners, nor the decentralization of administrative power. The Uruguayan Constitution was conceived in a way that divides state power to prevent any single actor from gaining an undue amount of influence, and this appears to bother Mujica and his acolytes.

“We want to change the constitution, among other reasons, because many times private property is placed ahead of the public and common good,” said Lucía Topolanski, Mujica’s wife and Uruguayan senator. “We need to find a way to place a greater emphasis on public, rather than private goods, in the Constitution.”

In the face of these obstacles, the Mujica government has not relented, continuing to propose other laws to replace the ICIR. The Supreme Court has ruled each one of them unconstitutional, and Mujica has become increasingly intemperate in his reactions.

Judiciary on a War Footing

At the root of these and other issues, is a growing divide between the executive and judicial branches. The most recent clash stemmed from a 2010 law that resulted in a massive debt owed to judges that the administration tried to avoid paying. In the end, their tactics were ruled unconstitutional, and the executive was ordered to pay the money owed to the judiciary.

In a recent statement, the Association of Uruguayan Magistrates said the judges are “in a state of extraordinary permanent assembly, and in serious conflict with the executive branch due to its stubborn and illegitimate refusal to comply with the law and two court orders.”

“As holders of state power, a judge’s right to fair compensation is part of a basic guarantee of the rule of law,” said Supreme Court Justice Jorge Larrieux.

In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton said that limited government and a genuine separation of powers are essential aspects of a republic. The independence of judges is an integral part of safeguarding basic constitutional principles like individual rights.

Hamilton claimed there was no greater contributing factor to an independent judiciary than lifetime appointments to judicial positions. He also felt judges should be guaranteed a salary that is reflective of the importance of their role within government, and does not depend on the arbitrary whims of government officials. “He who controls one’s daily subsistence controls his whole moral nature,” he said.

Through this lens, it is clear that republicanism is under siege in Uruguay, primarily due to a continuous onslaught from radical socialists.

What’s most concerning is that following October’s national elections, the MPP is now the largest faction within the Broad Front. Along with other socialist political movements, they form a power bloc that looks to deepen changes that will make Uruguay an even more socialist country.

Can Uruguay’s institutions resist these changes, or will we become yet another pawn in ALBA’s grand scheme?

Translated by Alex Clark-Youngblood.

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