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A luta continua

From the end of November, Uruguay is likely to have as its president José "El Pepe" Mujica - a former Marxist guerrilla who spent over a decade in prison. Arrested for activities with the armed revolutionary group Tupamaro, his time in jail under dictatorship included two years of solitary confinement at the bottom of a well.

These days he is a soft-spoken, portly 74-year-old. Since the dictatorship ended in 1985, he has been active in democratic politics. And though he is not as moderate as the incumbent, Tabaré Vázquez, he is unlikely to stray too far from the centre left. Mujica is a great example of the left's successful participation in Latin America's democracies. The old elite's acceptance of a former guerrilla, or even a moderate leftist such as Vázquez, would have been unlikely until recently.

As Carlos Dutra, a well-to-do Uruguayan businessman put it, "Our democracy has changed . . . that is to say, it has matured." Meanwhile in Honduras, another "election", due on 29 November, is calling the maturity of Latin American democracy into question. Months after the military deposed Manuel Zelaya, international calls for his return have been parried and the coup government remains in office.

Their time in power has looked a lot like the bad old days - liberties suspended, protesters shot, critical media shut, and now rumours the government is compiling a list of dissidents. Other left-leaning governments are disturbed by the example Honduras is setting. Recently Fernando Lugo of Paraguay fired much of his military leadership amid evidence they were conspiring with the opposition.

The Obama administration now seems likely be one of few governments to recognise the poll. Zelaya, taking refuge at the Brazilian embassy, is calling for a boycott. Opponents of the June coup argue, as one protester put it, that "voting would legitimise and whitewash the crimes of the putschists". An election offering no credible anti-coup candidate will further obscure prospects for democracy; conflict is likely to continue. "We are preparing," said one young woman who moved to the capital to protest, "and we are scared."

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Left Hanging