Who Is Luis Alberto Lacalle Pou?

On November 24, 2019 he won the second round of Uruguay’s elections and since that day Luis Alberto Lacalle Pou, leader of the conservative Partido Nacional (National Party) also known as the Partido Blanco (White Party), has been president-elect of Uruguay. His rival candidate, the former mayor of Montevideo, Daniel Martínez, leader of the leftist coalition, the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) conceded defeat on Twitter. Martínez came first in the first round of voting, with 40%, but he didn’t manage to reach an agreement with any of his opponents regarding the second round. Lacalle Pou, on the other hand, reached an agreement with the other two centre and centre-right candidates very quickly, convincing the undecided more easily. In order to win, he got together a complex coalition, the”multicolour” coalition, made up of five parties, including the Partido Nacional (his own) and the Partido Colorado (Colorado Party) of Ernesto Talvi and the former president Julio Maria Sanguinetti (the last head of state deemed “middle-class” before the advent of the Frente Amplio). For the Frente Amplio, the defeat in November was the first one after 15 years in power. Therefore, for the first time in many years, from 1 March 2020 a candidate from another party will lead the traditionally socialist country. The success of Lacalle Pou was heralded by the polls, but the climb to power proved more difficult than expected.

Luis Alberto Lacalle Pou was born in Montevideo in August 1973 and politics has always been in his blood. His family are historical figures in Uruguayan politics. His father, Luis Alberto Lacalle, a member of the same political party, was president of Uruguay from 1990 to 1995 and his mother, Julia Pou, was a senator between 2000 and 2005 and, obviously, the first lady. A commitment to politics has, therefore, been a part of the Lacalle family since the first half of the 20th century with his great grandfather, Luis Alberto de Herrera who was the legendary leader of the “Blancos” for around half a century. Known as being the undisputed leader of that party, he had a role similar to that of prime minister between 1925 and 1927. But before this he was a journalist and, afterwards, a member of the National Council of Government (Consejo Nacional de Gobierno) from 1952 until his death in 1959. His image, however, will remain closely connected with that of the only man, in Uruguay, capable of defeating the “Colorados”, namely the members of liberal parties. In 1958, one year before his death, he was victorious against that party, which had remained in power for 93 years. There are still legendary images of Herrera as a young man, portraying him dressed as a guerrilla. Luis Alberto Lacalle Pou is the second child of the former president and, before becoming a politician, he was a lawyer. He married Lorena Ponce de Leon in 2000 and they have three children: Luis Alberto, Violeta and Manuel. They say that the two of them met in the nineties, in 1996, at the celebrations held for his father’s political victory, where the future wife of the new president, belonging to a family who supported the “Colorados”, was taken by a friend.

His primary and secondary eduction was completed at the British Schools of Montevideo. In 1998, Lacalle Pou graduated in law from the Catholic University of Uruguay. He began to get involved in politics, also thanks to his father and the party that had welcomed him as well when he was young. So, in 1999 he was elected as a deputy to parliament representing the city of Canelones, remaining in office from 2000 to 2005. In 2004 he was re-elected under the “herrerista” faction of the Partido Nacional, the movement founded by his great grandfather. In 2009 he was reconfirmed for this third consecutive term of office, which he held until 2015, the year in which he became a senator. A deputy from 2000 to 2015 and then president of the Chamber from 2011 to 2012, on 30 March 2014 he officially announced that he was standing as a candidate for president in the forthcoming presidential elections in the following October. But, in that situation, on 30 November 2014, he lost in the ballot against the former president Tabaré Vazquez. His political career was compared by many analysts to that of Pedro Bordaberry, also the son of a former president of Uruguay, who chose to follow in his father’s political footsteps.

Many attribute the future president as being responsible for having managed to combine all the new forces emerging in the country in recent years, often on a personal basis, such as the Partido Independiente (Independent Party), the Partido del la Gente (Party of the People) and Cabildo Abierto (Open Cabildo), constructing a moderate variation of the leftist coalition that governed from 2004 to 2019. For various voters (and not only them), Lacalle Pou represents the leader of a kind of “centre-right Frente Amplio (Broad Front)“, the alter ego of socialists, progressive catholics and the reformist left which supported the various leftist governments over the years.

The Partido Nacional de Uruguay (National Party of Uruguay), also known as the Partido Blanco (White Party), draws its inspiration from conservatism and nationalism, with various christian-democratic traditions. Because of the name it is known by, its members are locally called “Blancos”, opposed to the historical background of the Partido Colorado (Colorado Party). In its early years of life, the Partido Nacional, together with the “colorados”, achieved an extremely high level of representation. Those who voted for it always recognised in this party the main force of opposition against the leftist progressive government of the Frente Amplio, the party of presidents Pepe Mujica and Tabaré Vazquez. Over time, its support grew thanks to the crisis in the Partido Colorado (the historical enemy of the “Blancos”), due to the ever increasing success of the left.

The latest victory of the “Blancos” definitely interrupted the authority of Frente Amplio, in government since 2004. This leftist group was founded on 5 February 1971 and, over time, incorporated the Socialist Party of Uruguay, the Communist Party of Uruguay and the Christian Democrat Party of Uruguay, as well as other groups deemed to be minor and disappointed in the other parties (including the “Blancos” and “Colorados”). The coup d’etat on 27 June 1973 quashed the new group and all the parties it was composed of. Liber Seregni, who was the president at the time, was imprisoned.

The Partido Colorado was historically Uruguay’s political party with liberal leanings, founded in 1836. The special feature of this group, in the 20th century, has always been alternating political positions going from the right to the centre-left. This represented both its strong point and its fragility, especially as the social norms evolved. After the elections in 2004, the party was plunged into a serious crisis of conscience, when it only got a 10% approval rating and came in third place after the (governing) Frente Amplio and the Partido Blanco, which led the opposition in those years.

According to what was reported by Lettera43, in the first round on 27 October 2019, Luis Alberto Lacalle Pou gained 28.62% of the votes, compared with 39.02% by Martínez, 12.34% by the “colorado” Ernesto Talvi and 11.04% by Guido Manini Rios, the former commander of the army defeated by Vazquez for having defended the military regime and founder of the Cabildo Abierdo, a group clearly inspired by the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. In the voting on 24 November, in spite of the strong recovery by Martinez, Lacalle Pou won and now, thanks to just over 30,000 votes, will, from 1 March 2020, be the first centre-right president for many years.

Many are asking what caused the victory of a right-leaning party after so many years of socialist traditions. After Lacalle senior and after other Colorados presidents, in 2004 the Frente Amplio, the lighter version of the “Marea Rosa” of the left wing governments of that area, was victorious for the first time. There were actually three mandates: that of Vazquez, then Pepe Mujica (whose politics became a symbol throughout the world) and then Vazquez again. Even if there were no setbacks in the authority of other leftist governments in Uruguay (as had taken place, over the years, in Venezuela, for example) and the country remained one of the best governed in the region, the perception of the widespread crime had an impact and the “Uruguayan model” began to lose ground. In the years it was in power, the Frente Amplio enacted important laws, especially in terms of civil rights, such as same sex marriage, the decriminalisation of abortion and the legalisation of the sale of cannabis. Decisions that should not be abandoned in the immediate future. Generally speaking then, the management of the economy has been positive and 15 years of socialist government have been characterised by economic growth, which has slowed down recently, with unemployment standing at 9% and the GDP balance deficit at 4.8% in 2018. In addition to this there has been a general lack of competitiveness in the country, whose (human) resources are leaving and relocating elsewhere. Crime increased and figures for murder rose from 284 in 2017 to 414 in 2018. Lacalle Pou also tried to base his election campaign on this, on how lawlessness has been of concern to many citizens. Additionally, his plan involved tax cuts for agricultural producers, the reduction of the deficit and maintaining the welfare state. All issues which, one after the other, led to his victory.

Very passionate about the ocean and everything involving the world of the sea, the newly elected president has inherited a passion for collecting from his famous great grandfather. Lacalle Poi was actually given a set of National Geographic magazines from Herrera, which he guards very jealously and carefully. He dreamed of becoming a navigator and explorer and he still strongly believes that had he not become a politician he would have been an oceanographer. He is very keen on surfing, an unusual passion for a South American leader, but he has never concealed it. He claims that surfing teaches “harmony with what is around us and being at one with the planet” and promises to continue teaching his daughter Violeta, in spite of this new (and demanding) public career.

Translation by Ruth Lebens