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Last Updated: Saturday, 30 October, 2004, 14:56 GMT 15:56 UK
Uruguay set for a swing to the left
By Elliott Gotkine
BBC correspondent in Maldonado, Uruguay

It was a spring afternoon. The open road was empty. The sunshine warmed the never-ending greenery on either side of the highway. A cow chewed the cud.

Broad Front coalition supporters in a convoy in Uruguay
Uruguay could be the latest South American country to swing to the left
And then, in the distance, they began to appear.

Pick-up trucks with tricolour flags on their rooftops, billowing in the wind, sleek four-by-fours honking their Dukes of Hazzard harmony and bashed-up Beetles with over-excited occupants.

There were hundreds of vehicles, and they all belonged to supporters of Uruguay's left-wing coalition, the Broad Front.

There was no doubt in their minds that they were on the road to victory in this Sunday's presidential elections.

Economic downturn

The people of this small South American country have traditionally enjoyed almost European standards of living.

But now unemployment stands at nearly 15%, and one-third of the country's 3.4 million people live below the poverty line.

These figures would be envy of much of South America, but for equitable Uruguay they are simply not good enough.

The left-wing Broad Front says that if it wins on Sunday - as all the polls suggest - things will start to improve.

But economic policy will remain pretty much the same.

A Broad Front coalition rally in Uruguay
High unemployment rates have added to Uruguay's woes
"There won't be uncertainties, there won't be surprises," reassures the Broad Front's Rafael Michelini.

"We will tell whoever wants to invest in Uruguay that they can do so, naturally, looking to make money, so long as they help generate opportunities and jobs in Uruguay."

The final batch of opinion polls was published on Thursday.

Most of them show the left-wing coalition's leader, 64-year-old oncologist Tabare Vazquez, winning well over 50% of the vote.

If he receives 50% plus one vote, he will win the presidency outright and avoid a November run-off.

His party would also obtain a majority in Congress.

'War without bombs'

The centre-right has tried to fight back.

They have cast the Broad Front as an inexperienced bunch of former urban guerrillas (some of them indeed are) who could do untold damage to the country's economy.

But few Uruguayans appear to be listening.

And the ruling Colorado party will enter Sunday's presidential elections with its popularity shattered by the country's recent economic crisis.

This devastated even relatively well-off Uruguayans, such as Roberto Fernandez and his wife, Anita.

Broad Front coalition presidential candidate, Tabare Vazquez
Voters are turning to Vazquez after an economic downturn

In their middle-class home on the outskirts of Montevideo, they sit down to dinner with Anita's mother and their two teenage children.

They tuck in to a mouth-watering spread of ham-and-cheese pie, pizza and spicy sausage.

On Sunday, they will be voting for the Broad Front for the first time.

One reason is the bitter taste left by Uruguay's economic crisis.

"What happened in 2001 and 2002 was like a war without bombs," recalls Roberto.

"It was a very difficult situation to describe. It was like losing everything we achieved in 15, 20 years, losing it in two years."

Northern neighbour

The US came to Uruguay's rescue, with a $1.5bn loan.

The US is by far the most dominant force in the region, where it encourages free market economic polices.

But it is still remembered for supporting the military coups in Chile and Argentina in the 1970s.

And it is seen as the mastermind behind the International Monetary Fund, which is often blamed for many of the region's economic troubles.

When he came to power, US President George W Bush promised to make Latin America a top priority, for trade and for foreign policy.

Instead, he almost completely ignored it.

But there is one other reason why Mr Bush and the US is so unpopular in the region.

"The problem with Bush is not really his commercial policies," explains political analyst, Adolfo Garce.

Political analyst Adolfo Garce
Garce: Anti-imperialist feeling is strong in Latin America
"The problem with Bush is that for Latin America he embodies a 'big stick' policy. So rejection of Bush is rejection of a US foreign policy seen as imperialistic," he says.

"And in Latin America, anti-imperialistic feeling has been very strong, throughout the 20th century. And so, during the past few years, in Latin America, they've begun talking about anti-imperialism again."

Standing beside his white pick-up truck as the campaign caravan sped past, Senator Michelini agrees.

"The relationship between the US and Latin America is just one-way," he complains.

"They don't listen to what we say. They throw surprises upon us. And they don't understand that South America is shifting to the left, and that it's moving towards creating a South American community. The US doesn't understand this. The EU understands it better."

If the opinion polls are correct, on Sunday Uruguay will become the latest Latin American country after Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Venezuela to swing to the left.

More could follow.

And by the time the US gets round to paying the region the attention it feels it deserves, it may find its southern neighbours a little less friendlier than they were before.

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04 Jun 03 |  Business
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12 Mar 03 |  Business
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06 Aug 02 |  Business
Country profile: Uruguay
28 Oct 04 |  Country profiles

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