Former guerrilla leader Jose Mujica elected as Uruguay’s next president

By Michael Warren, AP
Sunday, November 29, 2009

Former rebel leader is Uruguay’s president-elect

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — A plain-talking former leader of leftist guerrillas who once sought power through kidnappings and bombings is now the president-elect of Uruguay.

Jose Mujica won more than 50 percent of the votes cast in a run-off election Sunday, according to exit polls by the South American country’s three leading pollsters, giving the center-left Broad Front coalition five more years in power.

Former President Luis A. Lacalle of the center-right National Party conceded defeat. He trailed with about 45 percent of the votes, exit polls by Cifra, Factum and Equipos Mori said. The Electoral Court was expected to release offical results late Sunday.

Lacalle had sought to portray his rival as a radical who would transform Uruguay into an extremist socialist state, but Mujica campaigned as a consensus builder, saying he would continue the policies of popular President Tabare Vazquez and work to unify Latin Americans after taking office begins March 1.

The Tupamaro guerrillas, co-founded by Mujica, caused so much chaos in the 1960s that Uruguayans initially welcomed a dictatorship that ruled from 1973-85. Mujica spent all that time in prison, enduring torture and solitary confinement, an experience he said cured him of any illusion that armed revolution can achieve lasting social change.

Mujica made a brief, enthusiastic victory speech as a drenching rain poured over thousands of supporters who crowded along the Ramblas, Montevideo’s coastal avenue. Aides tried to cover him with umbrellas, but the 74-year-old moved so quickly back and forth along the stage that he quickly got soaked.

“Comrades! This is an inside-out world! You should be up here and us down there, because the people gave us this victory!” Mujica said, thanking Vazquez, each of his rivals, and all his “brothers” across Latin America.

“There are those who believe that power is up above, and they don’t notice that it’s actually in the hearts of the great masses. Thank you! It cost me an entire life, perhaps, to learn this. Thank you, and until forever!” Mujica shouted.

Mujica vowed before the vote to do everything possible to build bridges and avoid creating an atmosphere of tension and drama. He said negotiation and dialogue would be his tools, and cited Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as his inspiration.

The Broad Front held on to a narrow majority in Congress, where Mujica’s wife, Sen. Lucia Topolansky, earned the most votes and will therefore be third in line to the presidency, after Vice President-elect Danilo Astori, an economist initially favored by Vazquez to succeed him.

The National Party traded power with the right-wing Colorado Party for 150 years until the Broad Front pulled more than 20 leftist factions together five years ago to give Vazquez a presidential victory.

Lacalle, a scion of Uruguay’s political elite, finished second in October’s first-round election, and picked up most Colorado Party votes, but the two parties combined now lack the numbers to defeat the leftists.

Many voters said the single five-year term required by Uruguay’s constitution wasn’t enough to consolidate the successes of Vazquez, a Marxist oncologist who enjoyed 71 percent approval ratings in a poll this month.

Vazquez imposed a progressive income tax, using the additional revenue to lower unemployment and poverty, provide equal access to health care to everyone under 18 and steer the economy to 1.9 percent growth this year even as many other economies shrank.

Lacalle, in contrast, was a champion of privatization during his 1990-95 term and vowed this time to eliminate the income tax and “take a chain saw” to state bureaucracies. But he also acknowledged Vazquez’s successes, saying he would make no major changes in economic policies.

Mujica helped start the Tupamaros, one of many Latin American leftist rebel groups inspired by the Cuban revolution in the 1960s to organize kidnappings, bombings, robberies and other attacks on U.S.-backed right-wing governments. Convicted of killing a policeman in 1971, he endured torture and solitary confinement during nearly 15 years in prison.

Mujica’s wife also was a Tupamaro leader, and like him was tortured during more than 13 years in prison.

In the quarter-century since the dictatorship ended and they were granted amnesty, the couple transformed the Tupamaros into a legitimate political movement that is now the driving force behind the Broad Front.

But Mujica still has the appearance of an anti-politician, a gruff old man more comfortable driving a tractor on his farm than shuffling through marbled halls. And his wife has said she’ll focus on her work as senator, only reluctantly enduring the protocols of a first lady.

In a July speech, Mujica vowed to distance the left from “the stupid ideologies that come from the 1970s — I refer to things like unconditional love of everything that is state-run, scorn for businessmen and intrinsic hate of the United States.

“I’ll shout it if they want: Down with isms! Up with a left that is capable of thinking outside the box! In other words, I am more than completely cured of simplifications, of dividing the world into good and evil, of thinking in black and white. I have repented!”

Associated Press writers Raul O. Garces and Alfonso Castiglia contributed to this report.

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