A morning rain had turned the dirt road to mud, and Jorge Batlle strode alongside the cornfield, his cloth shoes sinking in the wet black earth. He wore a cap and gray cotton pants, which he had rolled to midcalf, and when he reached barbed wire he would hook it with the wooden handle of his umbella, and step over or duck under.
"I went to the 10th floor, and there was another apartment house beside ours." His Spanish, fast and Italian-accented, the way the River Plate people speak it, would switch without warning into faintly British-sounding English and then back again. "I jumped to the next roof, and I jumped to the second house, the third house, the fourth house in the block. I jumped in a garden.I looked at the window, and appears a young lady. I take out a pistol.
"I put the pistol to her head. I said, Open the door, please.' She said, 'Oh, no, Mr. Batle, I am a good friend of yours.' I said, 'My house is surrounded by the police.' So I phoned the president. I told the president I was surrounded, and I protested, and [he said] that I should stay at home to await what should be done about it. The young lady kept for me my gun in a flashlight."
It was Sunday, and Jorge Batlle, the heir to the most famous name in Uruguayan politics, had driven to the country to deliver flour and sugar to the man who farms his land. Batlle (the name is pronounced "bah-jay"), the son of a president, the great-nephew and great-great nephew of presidents, spends much of his time now administering land.
He has corn and dairy cows. He breeds race horses. He drinks mate, the bitter hot tea Uruguayans sip from a gourd with a silver straw. He drives to the country in a small white Ford, his cap hanging from the stick shift, the radio playing tangos as he slows for the horse-drawn carts and 1938 Chevrolets that clatter down the roads between the pastures.
He reads -- Spanish, English, French. He is studying German. He makes telephone calls from his penthouse apartment, the River Plate brown-green outside as far as the horizon, while the police, in an arrangement nobody bothers to pretend about, listen in on his line. Jorge Batle, in the language of the 8-year-old military-controlled Uruguayan government, is "proscribed."
It is illegal, under the terms of a 5-year-old Uruguayan law called Institutional Act Number 4, for Batle to pursue the only career he ever envisioned for himself. Although his family's name is emblazoned across Uruguay -- on statues, street signs, newspaper mastheads and the red-and-black decal that shines insolently out from his car windshield -- Jorge Batlle, like every other former politician in Uruguay, is forbidden to talk about, write about or in any way practice politics.
"A medal for good service," Batlle said of the proscription, his voice clipped and angry. "The Victoria Cross. They took me prisoner. They investigated me. They proscribed me. This means I was a danger to them."
The name Batlle is Spanish, and Uruguayan encyclopedias are heavy with it: the early 19th-century immigrant merchant from Catalonia; the merchant's son, who became president; the president's son, who also became president, and who in the early years of this century changed Uruguay with an extraordinary program of nationalizations and social benefits -- free and compulsory education, social security, free workers' medical benefits, legal divorce that was easier for women than for men.
Jorge Batlle imagined that he would also be president of Uruguay. He had lived as a young man in the presidential home, been elected to congress and married in a summer garden full of dark-suited politicians and ladies in pillbox hats. The president of Argentina had been seated at a long banquet table. Batlle's wife was regal for the photographers, rose-colored powder on her cheeks, a white dress swirling around and out behind her on the floor. Batlle had smiled, made the rounds, shaken hands; the torch-bearer's celebration. Someone thought of taking three-dimensional pictures. Years later, when Batlle's wife brought out the pictures, they sat on the bed together and held the little viewer up to the light of the windows. "Look," Batlle hooted, "I was handsome."
He ran for president in 1971. He lost and began editing a newspaper. Those were the years of the guerrilla Tupamaros, who favored ransom kidnapings as a tactic for radical economic change, years when the campaign to wipe out the Tupamaros was earning the Uruguayan military an international reputation for torture and arbitrary arrest. When Batlle declared on television that the military was destroying democracy just as effectively as the Tupamaros were, they arrested him, too.
That was when he jumped off his apartment building and accosted his neighbor. The police finally did take Batlle in, releasing him after a month. He says he was never tortured. One of his fellow presidential candidates, Wilson Ferreira, fled Uruguay and has lived in exile since. Two Uruguayan legislators were found murdered in Argentina. Anmesty International and other human rights organizations have reported the imprisonment of writers, defense lawyers, and trade unionists. Batlle, from a certain Uruguayan perspective, was one of the lucky ones.
The military closed the Uruguayan Congress in 1973. In September 1976, with their power firmly entrenched, the junta released Institutional Act Number 4. It deprived any former legislator, or former presidential candidate, or former leader of a political party -- Batle was all three -- of the right to vote.
"The subversive movement has spread with the shedding of innocent blood," read the act. "This made it necessary to temporarily suspend all activity of the political parties, and to place outside the law all Marxist associations, who are mainly responsible for the current situation."
In political terms, Jorge Batlle had officially ceased to exist. When he was shot in the leg three years later by a man who claimed that Batlle had cheated him in a business deal, one of the major newspapers referred to him simply as "Doctor Batlle," using the title Latin Americans give to almost all professional men. His brother, a pianist prohibited from playing in state-sponsored music halls, had already left Uruguay. (He now lives in Vermont.) But Jorge Batlle refused to go.
"They are Batlles," said his wife. "They die with their boots on. They think their country is like family, and they just don't want to leave the family."
Batlle came out of the farm on the back of a small yellow tractor. The farmer Socrates Picardo drove, Picardo in the beret and baggy patched pants of the Uruguayan peasant, Batle balancing himself amiably with his umbrella.
He had an almost practiced way of looking comfortable instantly in front of Picardo's house, where the baby slept in a small dirt-floored room and the oldest daughter shyly refilled the mate gourd. Batlle had pushed his cap back on his head and straddled a wooden chair on the open ground, talking to Picardo about crops, and the weather, and the land Batlle would buy from the old man the next field over.
When he left he shook hands with Picardo.
He also shook hands with the bare-armed dairy farmer whose dirt clearing had given Batlle someplace to leave his car. When he reached the brick restaurant that served good steaks and fried potatoes, Batlle shook hands with the restaurant owner, praised her meat, praised her caramel custard, prasied her antique furniture, and observed from a street sign that he was standing on Jose Batlle y Ordonez (his great-uncle) Boulevard.
"See you at the next plebiscite," Batlle said.
Like nearly every other Uruguayan political figure, Batlle was dead set against the plebiscite set up by the government last Nov. 30. That p plebiscite would have given the military permanent power over Uruguayan politics. On several hundred cassette tapes distributed throughout Uruguay, Batlle spoke against the plebiscite. It was rejected by 57.2 percent of the Uruguayan voters.
Batlle headed now past peach orchards, vineyards, and blue-violet wildflowers lush along the sides of the road, and talked about the Tupamaros. He spoke contemptuously, mimicking a protest singer. His voice began to rise.Batlle tends to shout in economic arguments, speaking mostly in very rapid Spanish, and banging furniture with the flat of his hand. He is a liberal in the way that Milton Friedman is: He believes that protective tariffs must be lowered, that the country should be opened to competition from outside, that the role of the state should be diminished.
"The only fault of anarchy is that people are not perfect," he said. "If people were perfect, anarchy would be the best way to govern society."
His is a vision quite different in tactics -- although not, Batlle insisted, in outcome -- from the benevolent protectionism his famous great-uncle imposed.
"What is good for a country in 1920 or 1930 is not good for a country today," he said. There are complaints; workers' wages are depressed. "When they say to you, 'This system feels bad,' ask them what they would prefer," he said. "All I can tell you is that the old system also kept wages down, and that nothing has changed."
At a racetrack near where he keeps a 2-year-old filly, Batlle bumped his car up into the mud and walked out among the trainers and the cooling horses. He watched the crowd as he walked. "Jorge," someone cried. He clasped the outstretched hand, moved away a little, spoke softly to the man. Heads turned. Batlle was known.He smiled. A black-suited man with a bulbous red nose and a raspy voice called Batlle's name. They embraced, talked quietly. There was another handshake, then a quick conversation, voices low.
"It's a little town, you know," Batlle said. "Everybody knows you." He said his father used to come to the track, even during his presidency. His father the president used to stand in line at the movies, Batlle said.
An ice cream vendor lifted his nasal voice. Battle bought an ice cream bar. "You can be very close to them, or you can be very far from them," he said softly.