Latin American Studies

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Intellectuals and Left Politics in Uruguay, 1958–2006

Frustrated Dialogue

Stephen Gregory is an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Languages and Linguistics at the University of New South Wales, Australia. His recent research into culture and politics includes papers on Mario Benedetti, Jorge Luis Borges, and the collaboration of Wim Wenders and Ry Cooder.

Beginning in the year Uruguayans elected a different party into government for the first time in nearly a century, the author examines intellectuals’ role in the Uruguayan left’s drive toward unity and effectiveness. Discussion focuses on fragmentation and impotence on the left; frustrated attempts at left unity in the 1960s; the creation of the centre-left Broad Front in 1971; and the defeat of all left endeavours and all dialogue in the 1973 military coup – a prelude to a twelve-year dictatorship in which the military substituted themselves for intellectuals.

The story continues in 1985, reversing the earlier trend in a record of dispersal and diversity. The author details the initial post-authoritarian anarchic cultural outburst – part celebration, part frustration; intellectuals’ role in the disputes that accompanied the Broad Front’s move from democratic socialism to social democracy, and from opposition to government in 2004; and recent excursions into the long-standing Uruguayan obsession with its identity and viability as an independent nation.

This book is essential reading for all those interested in interplay between intellectuals and politics in Latin America; changes in the Latin American left since the 1960s; and the leftward drift of elected governments in the Southern Cone.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-265-5
Hardback Price: £25.00 / $35.00
Release Date: March 2009
Page Extent / Format: 256 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No


Note on Translations and References

Introduction: Uruguay as a Question

Part One: Towards Intellectual and Political Unity
1 From Alienation to Integration: Intellectuals, Politics and Polemics
2 From FIDEL to the Frente: The Uruguayan Left Looks for Someone to Talk to
3 Dialogue Engaged: The Frente Amplio as Coalition
Interlude: The Armed Forces and Failure

Part Two: Political Unity; Intellectual Dispersal
4 The Revenge of the Foreign: Uruguay on the Eve of De(con)struction
5 Dialogue Resumed: Democracy, Intellectuals and the Frente Amplio in Post-Dictatorship Uruguay
6 Dialogue Outside Politics: Uruguay as Problem in the Twenty-first Century



Via consideration of published scholarship and archival materials, Gregory (Univ. of New South Wales, Australia) examines the evolution of intellectuals’ engagement in political life and public debate over an eventful half century in Uruguay. This chronologically organized account begins with the debates from the late 1950s through the early 1970s in which the Frente Amplio was established as a new political movement. The second half of the book examines the military dictatorship, the transition to democracy, and the shift toward an increasingly electorally successful Frente Amplio, culminating the Tabaré Vázquez’s victory in the 2004 presidential election. Gregory’s ambitious attempt to synthesize five decades of debate, literary criticism, political mobilization, and political reorganization in 159 pages makes this book more accessible to readers already familiar with Uruguayan politics. Gregory’s monograph is best suited for graduate students and faculty interested in the interpretation of political texts.

Gregory considers the half-century that began with the election of the National Party – the first change of ruling party in 90 years – and the victory of the Frente Amplio government – the first by a center-left party since the South American country gained independence from Spain. His main argument is that during the 1960s, Uruguayan intellectuals helped a fragmented left unify and broaden its constituency with a new kind of politics built on consensus and dialogue in an increasingly polarized society. Alas, the effort foundered on the same widening social and political rifts that led to the 1973 coup and 12 years of dictatorship, he says, and relations between intellectuals and politics after the return of democracy has taken two paths.
Reference & Research Book News

Stephen Gregory’s book examines intellectual discourse and practice in the politics of the demise and rebirth of Uruguay’s democracy from the late 1950s until the beginning of the twenty-first century and, as the title indicates, particularly the role of intellectuals on the left of the ideological spectrum.
Bulletin of Latin American Research

This book maps the relations between progressive intellectuals and the left in Uruguay over the past half-century. Starting in the late 1950s, at a time when the left was an electorally marginal and politically divided force, it ends with the groundbreaking electoral victory of the country’s main left-wing party, the Frente Amplio (Broad Front), in 2004. Appropriately enough, the story starts by quoting an essay written in 1952 by Juan Flo, a young intellectual, who after deriding fellow intellectuals for being hyper-critical observers instead of active agents of social change raised a question of quasi-Leninist resonance: “What shall we do, then?” Flo’s answer to his own question was not entirely clear at the time, but over the following two decades Uruguayan intellectuals became important players in the country’s changing political landscape.
... Progressive intellectuals, many of whom were contributors to the highly influential weekly periodical Marcha, played a significant role in the negotiations that led to the foundation of the Frente Amplio in1971 and became part of a group of politically independent left-wing personalities that glued together the Frente’s fractious constituencies. The political life of the Frente was put on hold by the 1973 military coup that initiated a long decade of brutal dictatorship. Leftist intellectuals, together with thousands of activists and sympathizers, were imprisoned, tortured, and exiled by the military and prevented from publishing in their own country. However, some of the exiles, like the novelist and poet Mario Benedetti who took residence in Spain, became well known throughout the Spanish-speaking world and beyond.
... This book will be appreciated mainly by those interested in Uruguay’s cultural and political history. However, it can also be read as part of a broader narrative about the contribution of intellectuals to the rise of the left in Latin America and of the relations between politics and culture everywhere. It raises a key question that is global in its implications: Is there a role left for intellectuals in the traditional European sense of the term in the increasingly professionalized world of politics, including left-wing politics? In a globalized world the role of intellectuals continues to be to speak truth to power. The Frente Amplio has been in office for over half a decade. It remains to be seen whether Uruguayan intellectuals are ready to take up this task against a political force that they so much helped to set up.
The Americas

The relationship of intellectuals to political power has been an important theme since ancient times. It is no less so today and has been an increasing focus of culture studies, especially in the Latin American context, where the history of democratic governance has been spotty at best. The plague of repression that Latin America experienced in the 1960s and 1970s also engulfed Uruguay, the country with the most democratic political culture in Latin America. This volume seeks to explain the contribution that intellectuals made to Uruguay’s political process, the frustration of that process during the military dictatorship (1973-85), and the opportunities afforded to the intellectual community by the restoration of democracy and the left’s electoral success in recent years.
... It has been said that at least until the 1950s, Uruguay’s political parties lacked intellectuals, and intellectuals had no political parties. All this changed in the late 1950s and early 1960s as Uruguay’s economic and political stagnation led to an increasingly polarized social and political process resulting in the emergence of a military dictatorship in 1973. This dictatorship drove most intellectuals into silence and/or exile.
... Stephen Gregory has done his homework in terms of reading the output of Uruguay’s intellectuals since the middle of the previous century. However, tying their output to the political process and to governing is another matter. This book is meant for the specialist, but what makes it less accessible is not its subject matter but the opaque writing style of the author. Ideas should be exciting, but the too-often stilted language in this volume does not help bring the ideas to life. This is unfortunate since the connection of intellectuals to the left in Uruguay, a left that has now won a second consecutive presidential election, makes the subject more relevant than ever. The author knows this and makes a good case for the importance of his subject, but his style gets in the way.
... Gregory does a good job in reviewing the production of Uruguay’s intellectuals prior to the dictatorship. He successfully captures their preoccupation with Uruguay’s stagnation and the frustrated attempt by these culture workers to convince their fellow citizens to vote for the left in 1971. The military then suspended any possibility of intellectuals and the left having space in the public arena. As Gregory correctly points out, this would not change until the restoration of democracy in 1985, but it was the qualitative shift by the left, both politicians, intellectuals, and ex-guerrillas (including the current president, José Mujica) that enabled the evolution of the Encuentro Progresista-Frente Amplio from a minor party to coequal competitor with the traditional Blanco and Colorado parties and, since 2004, the majority political force in the country.
... “Frustrated dialogue” is a good subtitle for this book. Intellectuals in Uruguay from the 1940s until the early 1960s were frustrated by the generally deaf ear they were met with on the part of the traditional parties. Just as they seemed to find a home in the Frente Amplio, the military stepped in. The revalorization of democracy that was so palpable with the return of democratic rule in 1985 gave intellectuals a new opportunity to be heard and have their ideas put into practice, whether by being adopted by policy makers or practiced by an intellectual turned policy maker.
... Perhaps the best current example of an academic intellectual who has made the journey to government is Constanza Moreira, whose book Final de juego: Del bipartidismo tradicional al triunfo de loa izquierda en el Uruguay (Ediciones Trilce, 2004) and other writings on the first leftist presidential administration established her as one of the country’s top social scientists. As Gregory indicates, “At the end of her book on the rise of the Frente Amplio since redemocratization, Moreira asks whether the left could heal the wounds of a divided populace and address the ‘Uruguay as a problem’ that provoked the Frente’s beginnings.” As of March 1, 2010, she is a senator for the Frente Amplio.
... It remains to be seen whether the potential synergy between intellectuals and policy makers in the Uruguay of the second decade of the twenty-first century will result in a far less “frustrated dialogue” than the author has written about. His book helps us understand why we should care.
Hispanic American Historical Review

Reviewed in Latin American Research Review, vol. 47, no. 3 (Fall 2012)

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