Uruguay’s first leftist president, Tabaré Vázquez, died last weekend of lung cancer at the age of 80 – an ironic end for an oncologist who relentlessly battled cigarette smoking all his life.
Yet the real cause of the Frente Amplio leader’s death probably lay in his genes – he became an oncologist precisely because both his parents and his sister died of cancer between 1962 and 1968.
A malign tumour had been detected in Vázquez’s right lung in August, 2019, but the then-president nevertheless made it to the end of his second term in office (2015-2020) before handing over to current President Luis Lacalle Pou of the conservative Nacional (Blanco) Party last March.
Vázquez’s second term, dominated by economic stagnation, was not the success of the first (2005-2010), finishing with popularity ratings below 40 percent, despite sympathy with his personal health problems, as against over 70 percent in 2010.
One of only three presidents in Uruguayan history to hold office more than once, a seminal figure within the leftist Frente Amplio (Broad Front) coalition and later within the regional left, the socialist leader was born into a poor working-class family and had to work as a carpenter, waiter and office worker to pay for his medical studies, always describing himself as a product of public education.
His political ambitions only came in the second half of his life – for two decades after his graduation his main aims in life were to practise medicine with a social slant and to bring up his family of four children (one adopted) with the help of his devoted wife of over 50 years, María Auxiliadora, who passed away last year just a month before he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
But in 1989 Vázquez won the mayoral elections in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo for the Frente Amplio coalition, the perfect platform for a presidential run although it was third time lucky – only winning in 2004, after two frustrated bids in 1994 and 1999.
His first term (2005-2010) featured tax and health reforms, the restoration of collective bargaining, a social emergency plan to deal with the fallout from the 2002 economic meltdown and the "Plan Ceibal" to distribute laptops in the public education system. Thanks to this successful term his party colleague, José ‘Pepe’ Mujica, had a smooth path to succeed him in the presidency in the 2009 elections.
Vázquez also made Uruguay only the fifth country in the world to prohibit smoking in closed public spaces, upping taxes on tobacco steeply, which earned him a running legal battle with the Philip Morris multinational in international tribunals, a battle won in 2016 during his second term.
But that term was off to a bad start in hard times with the resignation of his vice-president Raúl Sendic in 2017 over the misuse of official credit cards for personal expenses. Recognition of the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela was also a divisive issue within the Frente Amplio coalition.
Finally, another side of the late president’s medical instincts is interesting here with the abortion debate now coming to a head – in 2008 Uruguay’s Congress approved an abortion law with massive Frente Amplio support, only to run afoul of the presidential veto. Although María Auxiliadora was devoutly Catholic, the motives of Vázquez were purely secular – he felt that signing the bill would be a violation of his Hippocratic oath, given the irrefutable scientific evidence of the existence of human life and DNA throughout pregnancy, also invoking international treaties protecting unborn life.
Latin American leaders across the political spectrum mourned Vázquez’s passing.
"The death of my dearest Tabaré Vázquez causes me enormous grief," tweeted President Alberto Fernández.
"True to his convictions, he was a milestone permitting progressive government to reach Uruguay. I join the mourning of the people who weep for him today and I hug his loved ones."
Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner echoed these feelings. "I greatly lament the death of Uruguay’s ex-president Tabaré Vázquez," adding that his accession to the presidency "helped to consolidate the ideal of the Patria Grande [“greater fatherland”]. My condolences to his family and friends."
The Argentine leader’s words were expressed despite the fierce tension with Uruguay during her presidency over the pulp mills installed during Vázquez’s first term in office.
"I had the good fortune to enjoy my relationship with ex-president Tabaré Vázquez. A true gentleman of politics has departed, an honest leader with common sense who strengthened the ties with Argentina and Mercosur. My respect for his memory and my affection for his family and the Uruguayan people," said ex-president Mauricio Macri, whose administration overlapped with the Frente Amplio leader’s second term.
Ranging from Paraguayan President Mario Abdó Benítez to Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro or Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez across the political spectrum, leaders all around Latin America hailed Vázquez’s personal qualities and services to regional integration, and even beyond – for example, Spanish premier Pedro Sánchez ("an enormous legacy of social policies and rights").
Vázquez was also praised from across the political aisle by one of Uruguay’s two other two-term presidents, Julio María Sanguinetti of the centre-right Colorados (1985-1990 and 1995-2000).
Other words of praise came from three ex-presidents, Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva ("Brazil and I have lost a dear friend today"), Bolivia’s Evo Morales ("our brother … who always supported the democratic process in Bolivia and condemned the coup d’état") and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa ("in history forever!").