Uruguay’s mounting crisis: a parable for the paralysis of the Left

This summer, as the British Labour Party finds itself blindsided by the rise of Leftist populism, a number of analyses have sought to counterpose this against broader problems facing the Left across Europe. In power in many countries at the time of the 2008 crash, and having embraced free market economics and neoliberalism in many cases, social democratic parties have been left unable to articulate an alternative to traditional supporters enduring falling living standards, rising levels of job insecurity, and who – for the first time since 1945 – see an economic and political system which is palpably failing them.

In the absence of new ideas, the Left has increasingly taken refuge in old ones, generally defined in opposition to something: most notably, austerity. Paul Mason views this as the start of a long transition signalling the end of capitalism as we know it; the trouble is, as whatever will replace it is still entirely unclear, social democratic parties find themselves trapped defending a system which they know no longer works, amid a context of what was once organised labour being dispersed, atomised, by the rise of self-employment, the digital economy and globalisation.

In trouble across Europe – only in Italy, where the centre-right was humiliated by various euro-related disasters, are the social democrats still in a position of relative strength – the Left’s only (supposed) success story has been in South America: where it’s dominated over the last decade and more. But even there, its position is now dramatically weakening, for reasons which are depressingly familiar.

In any case, we should note that what might seem like ‘success stories’ to unreconstructed Leftists have amounted to little more than ugly, lowest common denominator populism in too many cases. The main driver behind the Left’s rise in South America has been powerful, emotive memories of the 1970s: when the US covertly supported a whole host of murderous, fascist dictatorships, particularly in the continent’s South Cone (encompassing Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay). As democracy returned, and those who grew up under these regimes came of age, populist, socialist movements grew in influence: most of which styled themselves in opposition to the imperialist meddling of Washington.

Yet when they came to power, the response of a number of leaders (particularly in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and to a lesser extent, Argentina) was to consciously divide their countries between rich and poor. To oppose the demagogue Hugo Chávez in Venezuela was to be depicted as part of some American-backed Fifth Column, trying to bring the horrors of the 1970s back; and while it’s true that the CIA have clearly tried to infiltrate the opposition at times, it’s more accurate to say that under President Obama, the State Department has simply waited for Venezuela to collapse, as it inevitably will.

In August 2003, around 3.2m signatures were collected for a recall referendum against Chávez, provided for in the constitution. These were rejected by the National Electoral Council (CNE) on the grounds of being put together before the midpoint of the Presidential term; the government then raided CNE and seized the petitions. In September, the opposition collected a new set of signatures, some 3.6m: rejected by the CNE on the grounds that many were invalid. Riots which killed nine and injured 1200 followed this decision. The petitioners appealed to the Electoral Chamber of the Supreme Court, which reinstated 800,000 signatures, bringing the total to well over the 2.4m required; but this was overturned by the Court’s Constitutional Chamber, and again, the government seized the list.

Eventually, the referendum was granted – but only after the list of signatories was posted online by Luis Tascón, member of the National Assembly and government supporter. On television, Chávez boasted about the list, warning darkly that “those who sign against Chávez are signing against their country… against the future”; and that all signatories would “remain registered in history, because they’d have to put their name, last name, signature, ID number and fingerprint”.

Signatories now found themselves fired, denied jobs, denied official documents, threatened and intimidated by government-backed militias. Many fled the country. When it came, the referendum was rigged, as subsequent elections have been. The list itself can still be bought even now from market stalls in Caracas for a few dollars.

When supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, or the man himself, defend Venezuelan ‘democracy’, they are actually defending a police state: in which opposition leaders are jailed, and opposition supporters intimidated and worse by militias. Despite being one of the world’s most oil-rich nations, it’s a basket case. There is no paper or toilet paper on the shelves; the puppet Parliament has given Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’ successor, the right to rule by decree; Maduro falls back on comically suggesting that the Americans will bomb Venezuela, and sabre rattling against neighbouring Colombia and Guyana; food shortages remain endemic; murder, kidnapping and violent crime have reached epidemic proportions. Chávismo, whatever it stood for to begin with, has failed.

In Ecuador, meanwhile, President Rafael Correa uses millions of dollars from the country’s intelligence budget to censor and remove online videos and other information critical of him. The last remaining freedom of expression NGO was ordered by the government to close earlier this month, despite recording more than 600 attacks against journalists over the last four years. Amnesty International has accused Correa of restricting “core human rights of freedoms of assembly, association and expression in Ecuador”.

And in Argentina, which took to inventing its own inflation figures out of thin air, has imposed strict currency controls, and where the media has found itself under continual government attack, the as yet unexplained death of Alberto Nisman, a federal prosecutor investigating the 1994 car bombing of the Jewish Centre in Buenos Aires, again brought into focus a country where corruption is rife, the intelligence services have alarming amounts of unchecked power, and where freedom of the press is, in practice, significantly lacking. The peso was devalued by 20% in 2014; further devaluation is likely next year, and on the black markets, the currency has fallen much further.

The response of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has been, again, to sabre rattle: against Britain over the Falklands, American hedge fund managers, even Uruguay over a pulp mill. Peronism, a political doctrine which essentially stands for nothing, depends on this sort of populism. It’s a mistake to view Kirchner as a socialist; she’s not. She’s a neo-corporatist who buys off the poor while providing no genuine long term help, while encouraging a cult of personality – anathema to fully functioning republics, as the speech below beautifully explains – common to the leaders mentioned above, as well as Evo Morales in Bolivia. None of these countries are success stories; none should be cited by any sort of serious, grown-up Left as models to be emulated.

With the Brazilian economy in crisis, its oligarchs still hugely powerful (demonstrated by the FIFA scandal as much as anything else), and Dilma Rousseff weighed down by corruption allegations, what does that leave? Peru to an extent; Chile and Uruguay. On the South American Left, only the latter two countries (routinely cited in surveys as safest, least corrupt, and offering the continent’s best quality of life) have been consistent successes over the last decade: in both cases, by remaining moderate, non-ideological, and seeking to bring the whole country with them. Not cynically dividing them and engaging in what, in Argentina to an extent and Venezuela especially, has often amounted to political warfare against legitimate opponents.

Michelle Bachelet’s Chile is often described, albeit dubiously, as South America’s only First World country. The politics of its government? For want of a better term, Blairite. But the country itself is not remotely left wing, and closer ideologically to Colombia (which has increasing ties with the US) than the rest of the continent. Bachelet, moreover, is now enduring historically appalling approval ratings: which encouraged Latin American conspiracy theories regarding Chile’s recent Copa América triumph on home soil, are predicated mostly on a corruption scandal involving her son and daughter-in-law; and presage, almost certainly, a shift to the Right at the next election. Bachelet’s socialists are in trouble.

All of which brings us to Uruguay: the main focus of this article. A country tiny in population (just 3.4m, almost half of whom live in the capital, Montevideo), plentiful in water supplies and green spaces (geographically, it’s around the size of England and Wales), famous for its football and beef, and where welfarist traditions abound. A century ago, under the watch of celebrated President José Batlle y Ordóñez, Uruguay implemented one of the world’s first genuine welfare states: including unemployment benefit, eight-hour workdays, and huge government intervention in the economy. Many credit the socially cohesive, homogenous society which resulted with helping Uruguay, which became known as the Switzerland of South America, lift the football World Cup in 1930 and 1950.

But after the Second World War, in tandem with the rest of the South Cone, Uruguay fell into increasingly precipitous social and economic decline. The conditions triggering the dictatorship gradually fell into place as the country moved towards the extremes and Leftist activists, the Tupamaros (MLN-T) began robbing banks, gun clubs and other businesses, redistributing the proceeds to the poor. In 1968, faced with serious labour unrest, President Jorge Pacheco enforced a state of emergency and repealed all constitutional protections. Political dissidents were imprisoned and tortured; demonstrations were brutally repressed. The MLN-T responded by morphing into a fully fledged urban guerilla movement, which engaged in political kidnappings, bombings and assassinations.

Among their number was one José Mujica. Apprehended by the authorities on no fewer than four occasions, he ultimately spent 13 years in captivity: including a two-year spell in solitary confinement at the bottom of a well, where his only friends were rats. The insurgency peaked in 1970, and the Tupamaros had collapsed by mid-1972. Combined with the rigging of the 1971 election in favour of Juan María Bordaberry’s Colorado Party, this paved the way for the military to confront the independence of first the judiciary, then the executive, then the legislative. The dictatorship was ushered in in 1973; and at one point, presided over more political prisoners per capita than anywhere else in the world.

Uruguay, though, has always been a curious, idiosyncratic sort of place. Few countries anywhere have been presented with a constitutional plebiscite designed to ratify a military junta, let alone had the courage to reject it: as to their rulers’ shock, the people did in 1980. Even fewer would, at a further referendum, then reject the chance to prosecute those responsible: yet Uruguay did in 2009, despite many of those who had been part of the MLN-T insurgency now being in power.

How had the latter come to pass? Uruguay returned to democracy in 1984; and in the 1990s, embarked on a series of privatisations. Its always important financial sector became alarmingly dependent on Argentinian depositors seeking to hide their savings from prying tax inspectors, and taking advantage of Uruguayan banking secrecy. Uruguay was increasingly economically reliant on its much larger neighbour: meaning when Argentina catastrophically defaulted in December 2001, Uruguay suffered its own enormous financial crash the following year.

The 2002 crisis remains the pivotal watershed in the country since the dictatorship. The banks were shut for a week; hundreds of thousands fell out of the middle class into serious poverty; a lost generation of children brought up in such conditions wasn’t the danger, but the likelihood. Something had to give.

Since the return to democracy, the Leftist Frente Amplio (FA) (Broad Front) had been making gradual progress – but was up against two political leviathans. Between them, the Partido Colorado and Partido Nacional (Blancos) had governed Uruguay ever since its formation in 1830: the former, the party of the cities; the latter, the party of the countryside. No recognisably Leftist party ever usurped this duopoly: albeit the impact of Batlle’s reforms was such that both major parties tended, for the most part, to coalesce around the centre, and rarely attempt anything extreme. Other than the period around the dictatorship, democracy and pluralism (the latter, more than anything, is the cornerstone of Batllismo) were always respected.

The impact of the crash, though, completed the Frente Amplio‘s rise; and for that matter, squared the circle for many involved with the Tupamaros over 30 years earlier. The old politics had failed. Now, by putting together a coalition which encompassed communists, socialists, social democrats, social liberals, centrists and independents all under one banner – uniting the entire Left in a manner which, unfathomably, has still not been attempted in Britain – the ancien régime was swept aside, and Tabaré Vázquez returned as President, with a huge mandate. Vázquez and the FA won 51.7% of the vote, eliminating the need for a Presidential run-off. The governing Colorados were obliterated: collapsing from 32.8% at the 1999 first round to just 10.6%. Usurped in the cities by the FA, in a manner not unlike New Labour’s surge across London and the south-east in 1997, for the Colorados – historically, by far Uruguay’s most successful party – there was no way back.

Vázquez now commenced a comprehensive wave of reforms. Income tax was introduced for the first time; $100m was invested in emergency food and health programmes; the healthcare system itself was turned into an insurance-based scheme accessible to all Uruguayans. Poverty was slashed from 32% to 20%; extreme poverty from 4% to 1.5%. Notably, the government also presided over the One Laptop Per Child (Plan Ceibal) scheme, the first of its kind in the world, which provided every grade school student and teacher in Uruguay with a laptop connected to the internet.

The President further endeared himself to his compatriots by standing up to Argentina during a bizarre dispute over a pulp mill in Fray Bentos. His counterpart, Nestor Kirchner, complained that its construction would contaminate the Uruguay River, which separates the two countries. Bridges over the River were blockaded by enraged locals in Argentina; Kirchner took Uruguay to the International Court of Justice (ICJ); Uruguay threatened to resort to the World Trade Organisation.

The dispute lasted fully 7 years – and was ended by the ICJ ruling that the plant could keep operating, and both governments agreeing to the creation of a bi-national commission which would monitor river pollution. Vázquez later revealed he’d even considered the possibility of a military conflict: and sought the backing of his friend, George W. Bush, and Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s Secretary of State. Just in case.

Ultimately though, what made Vázquez’ success possible was sustained economic growth. GDP rocketed by 10.5% in 2005, and growth averaged 7% over subsequent years. Moreover, what separated the FA from so many Leftist governments across the continent was its pragmatism: cautious, even neoliberal economic policies were pursued, with foreign investment encouraged and inflation controlled. Most of the credit for this was due to the brilliant Danilo Astori, leader of the centrist Asamblea Uruguay and Vázquez’ indispensable finance minister.

Before being swept from power, the old parties had warned that the Left would turn the country into Cuba. Quite the opposite. Looking back, what’s remarkable was how well a coalition of such diverse political positions held; all those within the FA who’d fought for so long to achieve power and change Uruguay never lost sight of the bigger picture. The President, meanwhile, was in his element: an oncologist by profession, he’d been entrusted with a patient in near terminal condition, successfully removed the tumour and given it a new lease of life.

Tabaré Vázquez

Uruguay’s constitution does not allow a President to serve two consecutive terms. So Vázquez, who basked in extraordinary approval ratings of 80%, departed; and the overwhelming success of his government made Mujica, his very different successor, a virtual shoo-in. This was indeed quite a story. 25 years earlier, Mujica had been in captivity; 39 years earlier, after being shot six times by police, the then guerilla had been fighting for his life in a Montevideo hospital. Now, Uruguay’s answer to Nelson Mandela became its unique, truly one-of-a-kind head of state.

When they travel to other continents, Uruguayans are used to being asked just where their country is. “Is it in Africa?”, enquire some. “Part of Argentina?”, wonder others. Two men have done a huge amount to change this and put the place on the map. Footballing icon Luis Suárez; and Pepe Mujica. The world’s humblest President: who lives on a farm, grows his own food, gave 90% of his salary to charity, never wears a tie in any circumstances, and whose sole, cherished possession is a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle.

Pepe and his beloved Beetle

I moved to Uruguay in February 2012. When I arrived, people I spoke with were embarrassed by Mujica. “We can’t have a President who behaves like this!”, they wailed. “It looks terrible for us!” I thought it was wonderful, and told them as much: “We’d go crazy for someone like him in Europe!” For Mujica then, read Corbyn now? There are parallels: not only in their politics and peculiar appeal, but their humility.

That very humility, indeed, was why contrary to what might’ve been expected, Mujica initially consolidated his predecessor’s moderation and good sense. Astori was now Vice-President: under his watch, growth and stability continued, while the President kept those on the far Left of the coalition at bay. In the meantime, the FA married social liberalism with social democracy: passing legislation allowing abortion, equal marriage, and proposing that the sale of cannabis be regulated.

This latter idea was what sprung Mujica into global prominence. What’s rather less known, though, is that next to nothing has actually happened. Cannabis is the perfect example of how Mujica’s image is not matched by the reality: many Uruguayans believe he was much more concerned with how he appeared overseas than making a substantive difference at home; some, of the more cynical variety, even think that where Pepe’s concerned, it’s mostly all an act.

In 2013, Mujica gave a celebrated speech to the UN General Assembly, where he fulminated against the world’s obsession with consumption. He urged a return to simplicity: family, love, free time, a planet based not on markets but on conservation and fraternity. Free time, indeed, is a favourite theme of his; but with the cost of living in Uruguay prohibitively high, it’s not a luxury enjoyed by anything like enough of his people. Dirty, litter-strewn streets and lack of recycling (if you try to recycle things in Uruguay, they’re often taken to the same place as the rubbish!) also sit at odds with the romanticised rhetoric.

Throughout my time in the country, I was always aware of its constant contrasts and contradictions. Of high quality, high speed internet – but which took a month of pleading phone calls and a dozen cancelled appointments for the state owned monopoly, Antel, to finally install. Of buses which are cheap and reliable enough, but on which there isn’t enough room to swing a cat: if you have any luggage, whatever you do, take a taxi. Of taxis which, unlike in Buenos Aires, are safe: it’s just that the drivers fancy themselves as the next Lewis Hamilton and take you halfway round Montevideo first. Of a locale which always, to me, felt safe; but only because of porters in every apartment block, security guards outside every bank… and which was punctuated intermittently by news of a particularly shocking murder.

Most Uruguayans believe the country has never been less safe. Guns are readily available; murder and violent crime has risen alarmingly. Compounding this has been the rather ambiguous view of the government, many of whose members have a pathological distrust of the police thanks to their own awful experiences under the dictatorship. There aren’t many societies where the Interior Minister will blame a murder or robbery on ‘the consumer society… poor people want things too’, but it happens in Uruguay. Similarly, not many countries would, with football hooliganism rife, withdraw the police from a big match not to protect them (as was assumed around the world), but actually to protect football fans (and, it might be added, FA voters) from alleged police brutality. Last year, that happened too.

Again and again, what I noted was an extremely well-meaning government full of Leftist thinkers and academics, but which too often did not fully understand either the consequences of their policies, or the reality on the ground. A reality which, in cost of living, is so grim that the refugees Uruguay took in from Syria amid a huge fanfare last year recently asked to return home.

There were plenty of signs, then, that the FA was tiring during its second term – but as the economy continued to grow, poverty and inequality kept falling (reaching, in both cases, the lowest levels anywhere in Latin America: a fantastic achievement), and services by and large continued to deliver, nowhere near enough reason to kick the government out. In the middle of last year, the youthful, optimistic Luis Lacalle Pou, candidate for the centre-right Blancos, who seemed for all the world to have modelled his campaign on that which thrust David Cameron to prominence in 2005, briefly threatened a huge electoral shock. But as his policies came under scrutiny, his momentum fell away: under the marketing gloss lay not much by way of substance.

In any case, Uruguayans resist change like almost no other people anywhere; and Vázquez, the archetypal safe pair of hands, was back. Plenty of people were disenchanted with the government: but Vázquez is not of the Left, and his was a deeply reassuring presence. So much so that against all predictions, the FA actually improved its position – and in 10 years, almost nothing had changed. It still commanded around a half of the electorate; the Blancos remained stranded in the low 30s, the Colorados in the low teens. Another decade in government suddenly seemed inevitable.

But there was a problem. A large one. Vázquez is now 75, and will be 79 by the time of the 2019 election. Astori, now back to being finance minister, is also 75. Mujica is 80. And while the FA commands huge, vibrant support among young people, beneath these three political giants lies a lost generation: an extraordinary dearth not only of new ideas, but immediate future options. The individuals behind the FA’s rise were all radicalised by the 1970s: but memories of that time are fading, and almost nobody politicised during the 1980s or 1990s is ready to step into the breach.

Not only that, but the FA’s victory was so decisive that now, with their leaders old and tired, the far Left began to demand more. Much more. Fear of electoral defeat had gone; complacency and hubris set in instead. The consequences have eroded the government’s position at an increasingly disorienting pace.

Early this year, Uruguay’s public sector deficit was revealed to be much larger than expected: in fact, at 3.5% of GDP, the figure was almost identical to that during and after the 2002 crash. This owed to wild over-expenditure under Mujica (at whom fingers have been pointed with increasing fury); lower than expected tax revenues; and in particular, an enormous loss made by Antel. 2014 was the fourth consecutive year in which the country’s seven state-owned utilities had made an overall loss. Serious irregularities have since been alleged at Ancap, the state oil company; and gross managerial incompetence at OSE, the state water company.

During my time in Uruguay, there was always this worry in my head. With the unions becoming increasingly powerful but the state-owned companies inefficient and uncompetitive, was I watching some South American version of 1970s Britain slowly playing out before me? By way of warning, together with my students, I used to discuss how Margaret Thatcher had come to power: just as the British unions had rejected In Place Of Strife and paralysed the Callaghan government, would their Uruguayan counterparts end up bringing something similar upon them?

The alarming economic figures – in tandem with significantly slowing growth, inflation threatening to spiral out of control, and the peso dramatically depreciating against the dollar – called for immediate belt-tightening. Unhappily, the unions – and in Parliament, the far Left – saw it rather differently. On August 6, after a whole series of labour disputes, the first general strike in 7 years took place; followed by an ongoing education strike which has crippled the country.

In Uruguay, salaries for teachers are low – yet they’ve risen by 65% since the FA came to power. As well as mammoth pay rises (demands were for starting salaries to increase from $727/month to $1040/month, and an offer of $865/month was rejected), unions insisted that the education budget be ring fenced at 6% of GDP. The context of the country’s overall situation was treated as irrelevant.

In August, teachers walked out of primary, secondary schools and universities. After around a fortnight of this, the government had had enough: issuing, for the first time since Uruguay returned to democracy, an emergency decree. Vázquez declared that education was an essential public service, and effectively banned teachers from striking for 30 days. This amounted to a declaration of war; the unions certainly took it as such. Many teachers simply ignored it. The FA had entirely lost control of its own members.

Officially, with students facing having to work right up to Christmas (the school year usually ends in November) in order to catch up and take their exams, the strike ended without agreement on 3 September: the government stating that if teachers did not agree to an offer of $860/month, the extra money would be invested in school infrastructure. In practice, especially in Montevideo, industrial action continued: culminating in shambolic scenes on 22 September.

A group of high school students, demanding that the 6% of GDP threshold be met, occupied the Codicen building in the city centre. After several days of fruitless negotiations, a police tactical unit cleared the building – and were attacked outside by members of the Taxicab Drivers and Telephone Workers Union (SUATT); the Memory and Justice organisation; as well as what we might euphemistically term, hangers-on looking for trouble.

Images of what happened, and the all too familiar disarray of the police, can be seen here. Codicen is only a few blocks from Uruguay’s Parliament building: onto which, anti-government graffiti was scrawled. It’s difficult to recall another teachers’ strike anywhere which ended in such chaos.

Typically, much of the focus since has been on alleged police brutality: a running theme in Uruguay. The Left is so focused on human rights, and references the 1970s so often, that the police lack the stalwart government backing which is automatic in almost any other democracy. This leaves the police – who are underfunded, under-prepared, and in many cases, have to live in the same areas as criminals liable to threaten them and their families – frightened of taking decisive action for fear of themselves ending up in court; and plays an obvious part in the country’s growing insecurity. Indeed, over three-and-a-half years in what remains a very macho society, I scarcely met a woman who, if I asked them (which spotting a dispiriting theme, I very often did), hadn’t been robbed or mugged at one point or another.

Adding insult to injury, hugely depressing second quarter economic figures were revealed a fortnight ago. Wholly unexpectedly, GDP actually fell 0.1% compared with Q2 2014, compounding a 1.8% contraction over the first quarter of 2015. Now, not only slowdown, but recession seems increasingly possible: for reasons which are part internal, part external.

Uruguay is particularly dependent on Brazil and China, both of which are in trouble. It will not escape the impact of probable Brazilian and Argentinian devaluations next year; serious problems affecting Russia and the eurozone hardly help either. And as the economist, Pablo Rosselli, has highlighted, the government faces three awful dilemmas: between competitiveness and inflation (the latter is nearing the psychologically critical 10%); real wage growth and employment; public spending and deficit reduction. On each of these, the Left of the Frente Amplio is pulling the wearied administration in a direction it neither wants nor can afford to travel in.

If, as seems inevitable given the rapidly strengthening dollar, inflation does go over 10%, those hit most will be the poorest: those the government is most charged with helping. But of course, continued spending is only feasible if the economy grows in tandem. It’s stopped doing so; Astori and his colleagues are trapped.

Can Uruguay navigate a way out of this? It seems doubtful, not least because those charged with doing so are so old, so tired. For the first time in 11 years in power, the Left has taken a good look at Vázquez and realised, to put it bluntly: “He’s not one of us!” So when earlier this month and to the shock of observers, Uruguay walked out of negotiations over the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) – which has proven every bit as controversial as its more famous big brother, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – this was a clear case of the tail wagging the dog. The government did so under pressure from the unions; and that Vázquez made such a move well before it was clear what the agreement would actually involve underscored a loss of authority already apparent during last year’s election campaign, which could also be seen in stark terms during the education dispute.

Meanwhile, Mujica, probably the only man who could bring the Left to heel, has lamentably failed to do so, and continues to wax lyrical about some fantasy world unrecognisable to almost all Uruguayans. It’s not been lost on this observer that things started to go wrong domestically almost the moment that Pepe was discovered on the world stage, and began preoccupying himself with his image further afield.

Pulled between Left and Right, the Frente Amplio is as good as broken – but given it’s always been such a loose coalition, perhaps the only surprise should be that it’s taken so long. If you imagine a governing bloc whose two most important, powerful figures are 75-year-old Tony Blair and 80-year-old Jeremy Corbyn, you get a sense of how impossible this conundrum is to solve. The administration has faced more difficulty in six months than over the preceding 10 years; but those problems seem likely to only worsen.

Perhaps much of this is natural. Governments always tire after more than a decade in office; economics are always cyclical too. But there is in all of this a parable. As long as we live in a world of globalised free markets and interdependence – as long as corporations can up and leave if governments seek to put their taxes up – there will only ever be so much that any social democratic party anywhere can achieve. More than that, the moment it becomes too ideological, or frustrated supporters who don’t appreciate what they have drag it away from the centre, it hits more and more trouble. This was Labour’s sad experience after it removed Blair; and for all its considerable achievements, it appears increasingly likely to be the fate of Uruguay’s first ever genuine government of the Left too.

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12-man Chile (and CONMEBOL) 1-0 9-man Uruguay

Football has never, ever been about justice. If you want justice, go to the law courts. The reason for its extraordinary, enduring, ever-growing appeal all over the world is that it’s about stories, controversy… and above all, drama. Well, we got ourselves plenty of drama in Santiago last night. Where Uruguay defended admirably, missed a glorious chance to take a shock lead… only to be undone by that other key factor in so many major tournaments. The referee.

After Edinson Cavani’s ridiculous sending off – being sexually assaulted on a football pitch is now, apparently, a bookable offence, at least when it’s the hosts doing it – still La Celeste fought on; still they resisted. Alas, the otherwise rock-solid Fernando Muslera erred, the unlikely figure of Mauricio Isla pounced, and Uruguay were doomed.

There was still time for Sandro Ricci – an inept official, who had lost control long earlier with a series of needless bookings, and displayed a complete lack of common sense throughout – to add to his never-to-be-forgotten night by harshly (but in this case, understandably) giving Jorge Fucile a second booking for a tackle which took both ball and man. At which point, after exactly 12 months (almost to the hour) of being battered from pillar to post, Oscar Washington Tabarez’ troops had finally taken more than they could bear.

A team whose immense, single-minded unity has been key to everything they’ve achieved over the past 9 years exploded in fury as their cherished Copa America was wrenched from their grasp. Even Tabarez, enraged by what he’d just seen, more animated than in years, was in the thick of it, and also expelled for his pains. The game proceeded to its shabby conclusion: and Uruguay, beaten but unbowed, were out.

Over the past 3 years, this Blog has repeatedly highlighted Tabarez’ failure to renovate his team, or its style. Last night, there he was: still depending on the likes of Fucile or Cebolla Rodriguez despite both having barely played all season; still refusing to give Giorgian de Arrascaeta his head. La Celeste defended superbly, but did very little else; and however much, as I again reiterate, to turn Uruguay into an attacking side is to go against the very instinct and nature of the people, El Maestro is culpable for his side’s pathological poverty of creativity and ideas.

Surprise, surprise: guess who didn’t play against Chile?

But this is a nation of 3.4 million. That it achieves as much as it so often does in football is without parallel; and in such a world, small countries almost always close ranks, defend what they have and fight their corner. Uruguay do so extraordinarily well: neutrals deride their style, but this isn’t Chelsea, replete with hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of talent. This is a little nation in the South Atlantic which despite its myriad accomplishments, the world just doesn’t care about. At all.

And because so few care, few non-Uruguayans will dwell even for a moment on what happened last night. “Victory for football!”, some will even hail. Victory for a country which failed to suspend a player charged with drink driving; whose centre back sexually assaulted a man with the immense courage to play only a day after his father was arrested for causing a fatality in – the cruellest of ironies – his own case of driving when under the influence; and whose cheating and playacting made the decisive difference in the outcome.

The record books will say Chile 1-0 Uruguay: but the hosts didn’t win that match. The officials did. 11 v 11, La Celeste were fine. 12 v 9, naturally, they weren’t. What will the (entirely justified) beef of almost all Uruguayans be? Why is it that when their star man, Luis Suarez, does something wrong, the world goes into an orbit of apoplexy… yet when Gonzalo Jara does something just as bad (arguably, worse); and Arturo Vidal does something infinitely worse, it looks the other way? What do you have against us? Why always us?

Those players and their coach didn’t erupt at the end last night just because of the officiating. What happened was the icing on the cake: the crowning turd in the waterpipe of something which started in the 79th minute between Uruguay and Italy in Natal exactly one year beforehand. Check the date. 24 June. We should really have seen it coming.

24 June 2014. The day Uruguay’s annus horribilis began.

In the aftermath of that notorious incident between Suarez and Giorgio Chiellini, this Blog fulminated against the response of 99% of the Uruguayan media and public: so prone to believing in conspiracies, so reluctant to get their own house in order. Suarez did wrong and deserved to be punished… but for nine games? This man is their national hero. Coupled with him being banished from Brazil like a dog, this looked horribly vindictive; and in a world in which a man is arrested and charged with drink driving, yet suffers no footballing punishment whatsoever, it now looks utterly ridiculous

Just to rub more salt into especially deep wounds, Suarez, continuing a vein of form so rich he must be regarded as indubitably one of the three finest footballers on the planet, just inspired Barcelona to the Champions League title; yet his country was denied his services, as it will continue to be for four matches more in the eliminatorias. Uruguay, infinitely more than Suarez, have been punished… and they’re still being so.

Against such a backdrop, Tabarez’ job was to ensure his depleted forces got on with it – and however much many of us will question his overall approach, they did. In their usual “no football please, we’re Uruguayan” style, sure: no frills, no fantasy, little to get the pulse racing. Yet strong enough, still, to pose a mighty threat to the much hyped host nation last night. Uruguay without Suarez, Martin Caceres or Alvaro Pereira? Chile couldn’t beat them.

The game looked like it was heading towards penalties: until the referee handicapped La Celeste even further. Now, it was Uruguay without Suarez, Caceres, Pereira or Cavani: and at length, with only 8 minutes left, Chile finally found a way through. What country anywhere could possibly have resisted all that?

Not, mind you, that Ricci and his team were solely responsible. The behaviour of footballers routinely leaves a sour taste in the mouth – but for Jara to provoke his fellow professional in such a way, poking his finger between Cavani’s buttocks, then going down as if he’d been shot after the Paris Saint-Germain forward barely brushed him, at a time when Cavani’s mind must be in absolute turmoil given what’s happening with his father, was disgusting. No respect for a colleague: instead, the very real family tragedy which Cavani is enduring made him a target. And the referee bought it completely.

Again, around the world, many will say: “So Uruguay got a taste of their own medicine for a change. They deserve it. Good riddance”. But by and large, they don’t deserve that reputation. Uruguay play hard – very hard – but almost always, fair. Other than that notorious incident in Natal, that is: for which, they were punished.

Football being what it is nowadays, it is incredibly difficult to do that: to defend as well as La Celeste almost always do, and ensure what happens almost always remains within the laws. Yet Tabarez’ side does. Very often, it’s more sinned against than sinners.

The problem, though, is that very approach – defend, defend, defend, pinch something on the break if at all possible – is to invite last night’s kind of contest. It makes it inevitable. And against quality, offensive opponents – Argentina 1986, Italy 1990, Colombia 2014, Chile 2015, and many other examples down the years – those games will be lost at least as often as (in fact, considerably more often than) they’re won. Just a bounce of the ball or bad decision, and you’re going home.

We also shouldn’t forget that four years ago in Santa Fe, Uruguay benefited from a very harsh second booking against Javier Mascherano, suckered by clever (but illegal) play by that man Suarez; that at the World Cup, first Diego Godin should’ve been dismissed early on against England, then La Celeste visibly profited from the teeth of Suarez as Italy were fatally distracted in the moments afterwards… and that maybe none of the glory run of 2010-11 would ever have happened if it hadn’t been for a ridiculous, near 10-minute long delay orchestrated by the hosts against Costa Rica in November 2009: designed to take the steam right out of Los Ticos’ sails, just when they’d got on top and Uruguay were visibly panicking.

La Celeste aren’t always robbed. They frequently get just as much rub of the green as anyone else: unlike last night’s opponents, who were the width of a crossbar from eliminating the World Cup hosts only a year ago, and whose constant run of failure has, we should acknowledge, sometimes owed to rank bad luck. Perhaps Chile were simply due a stroke of good fortune last night?

Yet there’s something particularly ugly about host nations being so incorrigibly favoured by the officials. I say that as an Englishman all too aware of what the Three Lions’ solitary World Cup triumph looked like to the rest of the world, or how Spain were robbed by disgraceful officiating in the Euro 96 quarter-finals. It was appalling: albeit, unlike what happened to Portugal, Italy and Spain again in Korea in 2002, not flat out corrupt.

Was last night corrupt? Many Uruguayans will insist that yes, of course it was. After what happened to Suarez, and we’ve all learned about CONMEBOL in recent weeks, what more evidence does anyone need? All it was, though, was a desperately weak official making a rod for his own back early on, succumbing to the same psychological pressure which favours home teams all over the world every single weekend, and being fooled by some utterly grotesque cheating.

This is football. Cheats usually prosper. The only real offence (as with Suarez on multiple occasions, or Neymar against Colombia), is to break the Eleventh Commandment, and get caught. Bad refereeing is so much more likely against host nations in major tournaments: meaning Uruguay are also at fault for playing so conservatively, they left themselves facing Chile in the first place.

As the dust settles on this exit, there will, I’ve no doubt, at last be a proper debate on both the team’s style and Tabarez’ future. Football aficionados, as opposed to the broader public, have been fed up with both for a long while now. A good number will plaintively inquire why their country can’t play football in the same way as Argentina, Colombia or indeed, Chile. Uruguayans aren’t blind to their team’s many flaws, nor those of their veteran coach: who isn’t at all guaranteed to remain. There’s a significant feeling abroad that he might well not.

If he stays, little will change. He’ll still be scared of introducing younger players, and the reason for that fear lies in his desire to play so defensively in the first place. Players like De Arrascaeta or Jonathan Rodriguez just don’t fit into such a rigid plan: which for 5 years now, has had Cavani hurtling here, there and everywhere: popping up at centre back or defensive midfielder, clearing chances off the line and breaking up the opponents’ play, yet denied the chance to do what he does best. Score goals.

Yet if El Maestro does take his leave of us, there are dangers there too. Nobody should underestimate what he’s done for this team: he’s put Uruguay back on the map, given the people their pride back, and made La Celeste extraordinarily durable in ties such as this. A new, more positive coach might well achieve a whole lot less; and to be sure, there won’t be much patience for any setbacks which might occur along the way. Ahead of the eliminatorias, Uruguay are at a crossroads: but we can hope, at least, that the annus horribilis of 24 June 2014-24 June 2015 has now passed.

While our favourites lick their wounds and ponder the future, Chile already have one and a half feet in the final, and will never have a greater opportunity to break their historic trophy drought than this… but even with 12 men, a voice in my head still says they won’t: that whoever emerges from a crowded bottom half of the draw (even Paraguay) will feed off frantic local expectation and make off with the spoils.

After what happened last night, every Uruguayan everywhere will fervently hope for that. Their pride and joy still have 15 Copas America and 19 major tournaments to their name; Chile still have a big fat goose egg. The host nation, Champions for the moment only of sexual assault and turning a blind eye to drink driving, still have it all to do.

How many Copas America have Chile won, Arturo?