A MAJOR attempt to privatise oil in Uruguay has been defeated in a national referendum. On 7 December some 62 percent of electors, 1.2 million people, voted against the privatisation of the state oil company.
The victory of the campaign against privatisation means a big defeat for the Uruguay government and a defeat for neo-liberalism in Latin America.
This is not the first vote in which most of the population rejected privatisation. In 1992 a widespread programme of privatisation was quashed in a referendum. And in 2002 a petition supported by 650,000 people made the government drop its plans to privatise the state telephone company.
But the recent referendum victory has a special meaning because the campaign was led by the trade unions and public sector workers.
At the end of 2001 a law was passed in parliament to hand control of the state oil company over to a transnational corporation. The law was supported not only by the government and the right wing parties, but also by the right wing of Frente Amplio (a broad front involving socialists, communists and other groups).
The oil workers' union, the trade union confederation and most of the left groups began to gather signatures on a petition calling for a referendum. Some 25 percent of the electors supported the campaign, forcing the government to organise the referendum.
The massive turnout on 7 December against the government has had important political consequences. The right wing parties are dejected. The government's coalition has been weakened and national elections are planned for next year. In the broad front Frente Amplio, the left wing has come out strengthened, although it still talks in ambiguous ways about the need to 'modernise' the state oil company.
But if Tabare Vazquez, the Frente Amplio candidate for president, wins the elections in October 2004, he must think twice before making any moves to privatise the oil company. The workers and the unions acted with a great independence during the campaign. And they could do it again.
The workers' self confidence is growing. Two months ago there was the first general strike we have had in many years. Workers in the health service occupied the hospitals for five weeks and won an important wage increase.
The water workers' union, the trade union confederation and other groups have just gathered a quarter of a million signatures for a petition against the privatisation of water. The referendum on this issue will be held next year.
The fact that 1.2 million people voted on 7 December against the government and its privatisations, shows that many workers and students reject neo-liberal politics. And many more want deeper political and social change.