The victory of the center-right National Party represents the end of 15 years of rule by the center-left Broad Front coalition. But unlike other progressive governments from the pink tide era, the Broad Front leaves government with poverty and inequality at historic lows, avoiding the wave of social unrest currently taking over the region. Also unlike its neighbors, the coalition will not leave behind a legacy of systemic corruption or an economy doomed to endless crisis management—Uruguay has largely decoupled from its crisis prone neighbor, Argentina.
The defeat of the Broad Front can be explained by the political exhaustion of ‘first generation’ reforms, like reducing poverty and inequality, failing to convince voters it could tackle complex ‘second generation’ problems, such as crime or education. Indeed, the statistics are as clear as they are paradoxical: Uruguayans live in a more egalitarian country with rising levels of crime and woeful educational outcomes.
On tackling first generation problems, the Broad Front was among the most successful governments in Latin American history. According to official statistics recorded by Uruguay’s National Statistics Institute, the country eradicated extreme poverty by the mid-2010s and overall poverty currently stands at eight percent. Income inequality—measured by the GINI index—stood at 0.380 in 2017, closer to European levels than that reported for its regional neighbors. As of 2019, Uruguay also has the highest per capita income in the region at $17,000, a result of avoiding a recession since the early 2000s.
Yet, the last Broad Front administration (2015-2020) is responsible for a serious deterioration in other social indicators. Firstly, high levels of unemployment and rapidly increasing underemployment. As of September 2019, 9.5 percent of Uruguayans were considered unemployed. Second, crime in the country has clearly worsened. Since the Broad Front took power in 2005, the number of cases of muggings increased by 227 percent—with 29,904 cases filed last year. The number of homicides also increased: in 2018, 414 people were murdered (in the entire country), compared to 189 in 2005. Uruguay’s homicide rate now exceeds that of its peers Argentina and Chile.
Crime and unemployment weakened the Broad Front’s support among low-income voters. As head of Uruguayan polling firm FACTUM and long-time political analyst, Oscar Bottinelli argues, the poor “have difficulty accessing or sustaining formal work, do not have a structural exit from poverty and are most affected by crime. All of this added up leads to a considerable part [of this class] to grow disenchanted with the Broad Front.”
The Broad Front’s shortcomings in educational attainment
Although the Broad Front’s policies made sure that basic needs were met, the structural causes of poverty remain largely in place.
An area where the Broad Front failed the poor was education. Educational attainment is key for social mobility, economic development, gender equity and social cohesion. For this reason, it is concerning that Latin America’s average educational attainment lags behind countries in East Asia, like China and Taiwan, and almost all the developed countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Uruguay is a noteworthy example of a decline in educational excellence.
Since 2000, the OECD has held standardized tests for students around the world (PISA) to gauge the effectiveness of their country’s education systems. The PISA score is an assessment that measures 15-year-olds’ ability to use their reading, mathematics and science skills to meet real-life challenges.
In the recently released 2018 PISA results, Uruguay continues to be a laggard. Although the country scores second in Latin America (behind Chile) on reading and science, and first in mathematics, it trails behind the OECD average and is far behind juggernauts like China and Singapore. Furthermore, Uruguay’s scores have barely budged over time. According to the report, “[Uruguay’s]…performance in all three subjects was close to the levels observed in its first participation in 2003 (or 2006 for science).”
The results of the latest score can be interpreted as either mixed or positive news. Although the gap in the outcome between the top and lowest scorers has narrowed, this is a result of both an improvement from bottom tier performers and stagnation or even a decline from top performers.
Another measurement that highlights Uruguay’s sluggish improvement in educational attainment is the World Bank’s Human Capital Index. According to the World Bank’s analysis, “A child born in Uruguay today will be 60 percent as productive when she grows up as she could be if she enjoyed complete education and full health.” The data shows that even though Uruguayans are expected to complete 11.8 years of schooling, this effectively translates to only 8.4 learning-adjusted years of school.
Uruguay prides itself on the adoption of universal, free, compulsory and secular education, as manifested in the 1877 Common Education Law Decree. The reform was spearheaded by the nineteenth century equivalent of a Minister of Education, José Pedro Varela, who “considered education necessary for the formation of well-behaved, hardworking, and loyal citizens, and for future national prosperity.” By 1900, Uruguay achieved the region’s highest literacy rate—its educational reforms can be partially credited for the country’s inclusive liberal democratic political culture.
Yet, the effect didn’t last. Uruguay’s economy fell into a deep crisis during the mid-1950s, as lower commodity prices and an inefficient patronage-based state exhausted its resources to maintain the country’s education system. Uruguay’s military dictatorship (1973-1985) led to a drastic decline in living standards and austerity that cemented structural poverty—in 1979, the country spent only two percent of GDP on education. After the return of democracy, governments struggled with the onerous debt of the dictatorship unable to meet the needs of the education system. Further austerity and the ‘Washington Consensus’ increased the private provision of education, turbocharging a bifurcated education system in a country that once prided itself on its commitment to egalitarianism—as of 2017, 18 percent of students received private education.
President Julio María Sanguinetti (1995-2000) sought to address Uruguay’s education crisis. His reforms created universal pre-K, extended school hours and introduced performance-based pay structures. The reform was controversial, as the government “refused to incorporate unions into the policy-making process, and relied on a small team of technical experts.” The powerful teachers’ unions and their partisan allies, the Broad Front, steadfastly resisted the reforms. The economic crisis of the early 2000s stunted their full implementation.
The election of the Broad Front in 2004 did not bring about any significant reforms to the education system. Instead, the Broad Front increased education spending as a way to address the crisis. Government spending on education increased from 2.5 percent of GDP in 2004 to 4.9 percent in 2017. However, increased spending coincided with a uniquely Uruguayan phenomenon: declining school enrollment, from around 350,000 students enrolled in 2007 to 296,000 in 2017.
Higher spending per pupil has not led to any meaningful improvement in educational outcomes. Much of the money invested in education went into hiring more teachers and increasing their salaries.
Between 2007 to 2017, the salaries of those employed in the public education sector increased by 57 percent, accounting for almost 60 percent of all new hires in the public sector. An analysis shows that 87 percent of total spending on education goes to salaries. Yet, school principals “reported more staff shortage[s]…compared to the OECD average.” The PISA 2018 country analysis also reports that between 66 percent of teachers for advantaged schools, and 47 percent for disadvantaged schools are not “fully certified.”
A new course of action
National Party candidate and President-elect Luis Lacalle Pou has made education a priority. In a document drafted between the three center and right-wing parties that, after Lacalle Pou’s election will constitute the governing coalition, Uruguay’s situation is described as an “educational emergency.” The coalition’s proposed controversial reforms, such as abandoning seniority as a justification for promotion and creating an independent office of assessment.
The teachers’ unions have already come out against the reforms. Unions say that the reforms fail to take their ideas into account and that they are based on a OECD-model that is akin to a foreign imposition and goes against Uruguayan traditions.
The teacher’s unions have proven their firepower in the past. In 2015, they almost led the Broad Front into a governability crisis after the government tried to impose austerity measures on public spending.
The battle to reform Uruguay’s flagging education system represents the mixed legacy of the Broad Front’s time in power. On the one hand, the empowerment of strong organizations—especially the unions—have helped to raise the voices of workers that aim to improve the quality of democracy and increase meaningful pluralism. At the same time, it also represents a vested interest group with the capacity to throw a democratically elected government into crisis and stem goodwill attempts to improve public provision of basic goods, like education. The next four years will test Uruguay’s strong democratic institutions and will reveal how durable the legacy of the progressive era really was in Uruguay.
Nicolás Saldías, Senior Researcher at the Wilson Center’s Latin America Program and Argentina Project and is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Toronto.