Tabaré Vázquez, Uruguay’s First Socialist President, Passes On At 80

LAGOS DECEMBER 7TH (NEWSRANGERS)-Tabaré Vázquez, an Uruguayan oncologist who rose from poverty to win two terms as the country’s first socialist president, died Dec. 6 at home in Montevideo, the capital. He was 80.

Dr. Vázquez announced last year that he had lung cancer, a disease he had dedicated much of his life to fighting. His son, Álvaro, also a cancer specialist, confirmed the death in a tweet, and center-right President Luis Lacalle Pou — a former political opponent — declared three days of mourning. Dr. Vázquez shook up Uruguayan politics when he became president for the first time in 2005, peacefully ending 170 years of two-party dominance at the head of a coalition of socialists, Christian Democrats, Communists and former guerrillas.

He promised changes that would “shake the roots of the trees.” But he governed as a relatively cautious moderate, avoiding the constitutional changes and polarization that have caused upheaval in other South American nations. He overhauled the health-care system and expanded aid for families, children and the elderly.

“The initiatives impacted the lives of children, workers and women, contributing to improved standards of living and a sharp reduction in poverty,” said Jennifer Pribble, a political science scholar at the University of Richmond and author of a book about Dr. Vázquez.

His popularity on leaving office paved the way for the election of his successor, José Mujica, a folksy former guerrilla. Uruguay’s constitution forbids immediate reelection.

The two were among the leaders who helped the small county of nearly 3.4 million people become widely seen as an example of democracy in the region, calmly assuming and relinquishing power.

Their coalition, known as Broad Front, held power for 15 years as the country’s economy grew and equality initially improved.

But in the second Vázquez administration, the economy softened, crime rose and Vice President Raúl Sendic was forced to resign over corruption allegations. The Front lost power after a runoff in last year’s election.

Dr. Vázquez had seemed open to that possibility before the vote. “I believe we have to alternate, people, parties,” he said. “It’s always good to have a fresh mind, with another outlook, another will and another desire to do things.”

As president, he championed some of the world’s strictest tobacco regulations and formed part of the “pink wave” of left-leaning governments that swept across Latin America. He quickly reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba but also managed to maintain good relations with U.S. President George W. Bush, sometimes to the frustration of his own backers.

The tall and trim son of an oil worker, Tabaré Ramón Vázquez Rosas was born in a tin-roofed shack in the working-class La Teja neighborhood of Montevideo on Jan. 17, 1940. He later served as head of a local soccer team that went on to win the national championship.

As a young man, he sold newspapers, worked as a carpenter and installed windows. He excelled in medical school and opted for a career as an oncologist after a six-year period in which a sister, brother and his father died of cancer.

Dr. Vázquez opened a clinic in a poor neighborhood at a time when quality health care was hard to find for the poor. “He always said that the same motivations that led him to medicine led him to politics,” said Ariel Bergamino, a longtime friend.

In 1989, he was elected mayor of Montevideo. He became known for an approach to leftist politics that emphasized the problems of peoples’ lives rather than doctrinaire talking points.

Dr. Vázquez was a “straightforward type” who “knew where he came from,” said Gerardo Caetano, a local historian. “He got bored in political meetings,” but kept up his medical practice after becoming a public official, continuing to work one day a week even during his first term as president.

Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

— Associated Press

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