Lacalle Pou isolates himself in Uruguay amid advancing spy investigation


Upon returning from vacation with his children in September, the president of Uruguay, Luis Lacalle Pou, was shocked. On the runway at the Montevideo airport, the plane was awaited by the police, who had an arrest warrant against the then head of security for the Presidency, Alejandro Astesiano.

The accusation, which surprised the country, was that the advisor was part of a passport forgery gang. Lacalle Pou promptly stated that he didn’t know anything and would wait for investigations.

Three months later, the case, instead of being clarified, seems to have become even more complicated, with a new complaint. The analysis of Astesiano’s seized cell phone indicated that he would also be acting as a spy, releasing confidential information from the seat of the Executive power — and charging for it.

Uruguay, which values ​​legality and institutionality as pillars of national culture, began to follow the episode as if following a soap opera. The last major political scandal that many remember in the country was in 2017, when Raúl Sendic, then vice-president of Tabaré Vázquez, resigned for having bought shorts and other trivial items with the government’s corporate card.

Research carried out in November by Usina de Percepción Ciudadana (UPC) showed that Astesiano’s case had already had a negative impact on Lacalle Pou’s image for 52% of respondents, with 69% saying they believed the former security chief had accomplices within the government.

After starting his term in 2020 with good popularity ratings – and improving them, mainly thanks to the handling of the Covid pandemic, considered satisfactory –, the president is now facing his most difficult moment. If in the first six months of management he had more than 60% approval, now, two years before the end of his term, he has 46%, according to consultancy Equipos.

For political scientist Victoria Gadea, from the University of the Republic, there are two characteristics of Uruguayan culture that highlight the case. “On the one hand, the premise of the exceptionality of institutionality — and that is the reason why an episode like this surprises us. On the other hand, we are a small country, in which proximity permeates relations”, he tells the Sheet🇧🇷 “When cases like this arise, there is always a justification on the side of proximity. But I don’t think that this situation defines us in a macro way.”

A recent report published by the newspaper La Diaria revealed that Astesiano had responded to a request from the Belgian company Katoen Natie to hand over information and data from senators Mario Bergara and Charles Carrera, involved in the processing of the concession project for part of the port of Montevideo. Opposition parliamentarians took the complaint to court, and the breach of bank secrecy by the former presidential adviser revealed that he had, in fact, received transfers from the company in the chemical sector.

Also part of the investigation are accusations that Astesiano sold plans for state works to foreign companies, in addition to details of Armed Forces equipment.

Lacalle Pou, in interviews since the case emerged, has said he was unaware of the official’s activities, but that he trusted him — as did all members of his family. “Astesiano took care of our safety. I don’t hand over what I value most in my life, like the safety of my children, to anyone. I believe that people are good until proven otherwise”, he said last Monday ( 28). “I also know that no one is above the law, so I look forward to the investigation’s findings.”

On the other hand, the Uruguayan leader has not been able to explain, so far, why a figure like the former adviser, who has more than 20 accusations still pending in court —from crimes such as theft and fraud to less serious ones—, reached the position privileged I was.

Astesiano had worked for the current president’s family since the 1990s. Lacalle Pou’s father, Luis Alberto Lacalle Herrera, also headed the country’s Executive, between 1990 and 1995, when the former advisor was hired as a driver for Sergio Abreu, then vice president. In office, he would have gained the trust of Julia Pou, senator and first lady, starting to work with the Lacalle Herreras.

The management of the Frente Ampla —a center-left coalition led by Vázquez and José “Pepe” Mujica— overturned the norm that, in order to take care of the president’s security, it was necessary to have some specialization in the area. With the change, Astesiano was able to rise to the post in the centre-right government.

Although the succession dispute is still relatively far away, as the election will only be held in 2024, the Frente Ampla has already used the episode as a way to wear down the president. “The government and the opposition see in this episode incentives to adopt a narrative for electoral purposes — and both are making use of it. But what most Uruguayans want is that the country’s institutions, which are traditionally strong, not be disrespected. clarification of the cases would help a lot”, says Gadea.

Lacalle Pou, for his part, says that anyone who “gives space and encouragement to this story is damaging Uruguayan democracy.” Meanwhile, the Frente Ampla asks the Justice to disclose the content of the conversations and exchanges of messages between Astesiano and the representative — something that the prosecutor in the case, Gabriela Fossati, said she will not do until the action is finalized.

Since Lacalle Pou started management, this is his most difficult moment. In the middle of the year, he separated from landscaper Lorena “Loli” Ponce de León, his partner for over 20 years and the mother of his children.

The size of Montevideo has exposed the president to the population. He has already been seen eating a “chivito” (traditional sandwich) in a bar or continuing a long conversation with an alfajorre seller. When he is not in the city, he prefers to surf the waves of the Uruguayan coast, especially in the city of Rocha.

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